CPD

Is a Sports Therapist the Same as a Physiotherapist?

Dr. Carl Clarkson
Dr. Carl Clarkson July 19, 2022
Physiotherapist taping client's back

Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy can often be mistaken for being the same thing, or as a branch of the other. But, as a healthcare professional, you need to know the key differences between these two similar interventions to refer your clients to the correct specialist. In this article, we outline the key differences between Sports Therapists and Physiotherapists to help you make the best decision for your clients. 

So, is a Sports Therapist the same as a Physiotherapist? A Sports Therapist is not the same as a Physiotherapist, however there are many similarities and overlaps which can cause confusion. Sports Therapists predominantly focus on the musculoskeletal system, whereas Physiotherapists consider the whole body and its various systems.

Read on to learn more about how Sports Therapists and Physiotherapists differ, and to gain more insight for making clinical referrals. 

Are Sports Therapists and Physiotherapists the Same?

Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy have a very similar scope, particularly in their treatment programs, which can cause clients to become unsure which intervention is right for them. However, there are a few key differences which can indicate the most suitable treatment for each individual client. But, first, let’s clarify what Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy actually are. 

What is Sports Therapy? 

Sports Therapists are experts in musculoskeletal conditions. They treat such conditions with a hands-on approach, utilising the principles of sport and exercise science, with a focus on rehabilitation and restoring, maintaining, and maximising movement in order to relieve an/or resolve the condition.

The Society of Sports Therapists (SST) explain that Sports Therapy is “...an aspect of healthcare that is specifically concerned with the prevention of injury and the rehabilitation of the patient back to optimum levels of functional, occupational and sports specific fitness, regardless of age and ability.

What is Physiotherapy?

The role of Physiotherapy is to help clients affected by injury, illness, or disability through tailored care plans that include movement and exercise, manual therapy, education, and advice. Physiotherapy is used for people of all ages and backgrounds to help clients manage or resolve their condition, and prevent it from recurring. 

The NHS explains that Physiotherapy “...helps to restore movement and function when someone is affected by injury, illness or disability. It can also help to reduce your risk of injury or illness in the future.”

How Do Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy Differ?

We’ve established that Sports Therapy and Physiotherapy are relatively similar, so how do they actually differ?

Conditions Treated

Sports Therapy can be used to treat a wide range of musculoskeletal conditions, such as:

  • Back, neck, knee and shoulder pain
  • Muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries
  • Sprains and strains
  • Tendonitis
  • Plantar fasciitis 
  • Pre/post-surgery rehabilitation
  • Frozen shoulder

Meanwhile, Physiotherapy can be used to treat a wide range of health conditions, such as:

  • Bone, joint, and soft tissue conditions
  • Brain or nervous system conditions
  • Heart and circulatory conditions
  • Lungs and respiratory conditions

Whilst they seem similar on the surface, and do treat many of the same musculoskeletal conditions, Physiotherapy encompasses a much wider scope, including other bodily systems, such as the nervous system, cardiovascular system, and the respiratory system.

Diagnosis

Both Physiotherapists and Sports Therapists are trained to expertly diagnose conditions, however, it’s important to bear in mind that Sports Therapists may only be able to assess and diagnose conditions in relation to the musculoskeletal system.

Treatments and Techniques

Treatments and techniques is where Physiotherapy and Sports Therapy tends to overlap the most; both interventions use a range of similar techniques, including, but not limited to:

Sports Therapy

  • Joint mobilisation
  • Sports massage
  • Soft tissue mobilisation
  • Stretching
  • Rehabilitative exercises
  • Kinesio and athletic taping
  • Postural correction

Physiotherapy

Outcomes and Prognosis

Sports Therapists tend to focus on rehabilitation and a full return to activity, whether that be sport and exercise, or your client’s regular activity levels. This is ideal for clients without a complex medical background, or existing health condition that factors into their current problem.

Physiotherapists, however, consider the body as a whole, therefore can treat a wider range of conditions, either to resolution, or to help clients manage their condition more effectively. According to a recent study, 74.8% of Physiotherapy clients have a good prognosis, whilst other research suggests that Physiotherapy significantly improves the rehabilitation and recovery from most conditions, as well as preventing recurring problems. 

Qualifications

Whilst there is no overarching legal requirement that Sports Therapists hold a degree to practise, many employers do require a relevant degree level qualification and membership of The Society of Sports Therapists (to which individuals need a relevant degree to register). 

Meanwhile, to work as a Physiotherapist in the UK, practitioners need to hold an undergraduate degree in Physiotherapy as a minimum, however individuals with an alternative (but relevant) undergraduate degree can study a master’s degree in Physiotherapy to qualify. 

Learn more about how to become a Physiotherapist in the UK in our recent blog

Is Sports Therapy Better Than Physiotherapy?

Neither Sports Therapy or Physiotherapy is inherently better than the other. It is more a case of which therapy is right for your client? If they are experiencing simple musculoskeletal injuries, a Sports Therapist could be a perfectly good option, particularly if the client is an athlete or enjoys regular activity.

However, in more complex cases, or those that involve other bodily systems, a Physiotherapist is likely to be a better choice as they have a much greater understanding of the body as a whole, and focus on more than a safe return to activity.

Final Thoughts

Whilst there are some clear overlaps between the two interventions, a Sports Therapist is not the same as a Physiotherapist. Although, that is not to say that they are any less qualified, or beneficial to their clients. When referring clients to either a Sports Therapist or a Physiotherapist, it’s important to consider the bodily systems affected, as well as the client’s goals and ideal outcomes; one intervention may be more appropriate than the other. 

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