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Athletic training and physical therapy: What’s the difference?

While these similar roles work together for patients, athletes and others, there are distinct differences. That’s what makes their collaboration so effective.

What is the role of an ATC?

You’re at a softball game when a player breaks her leg. Or maybe the crisis is in the stands when a grandparent suffers a heart attack. The first health care professional on the field? A certified athletic trainer (ATC).

Beacon’s Kara Werner-Sanders, MAC, LAT, ATC, CSCS, explains the scope of these allied health professionals.

“We handle prevention, mitigation and assessment of injuries and provide acute care. We assist with rehabilitation, manage concussions, heat illness, acute fractures, diabetic emergencies and even allergic reactions,” says Kara. “I jokingly describe athletic trainers as being somewhere between a paramedic and a physical therapist.”

ATCs are experts in biomechanics, preventing and treating injuries and responding to emergencies. Because of this broad range of care, ATCs work with more than athletes – and they don’t just work on the sidelines.

“In the high school and collegiate setting, most of what people see is us on the sidelines for when an acute injury happens. In athletics, we also help prevent over-training of athletes and guide coaches on that,” Kara says. “Athletic trainers have nothing to do with athletes’ fitness. We are not there to get them physically fit for participation. We’re there to handle acute injuries, and after injury, we’re there to get them back to where they need to be.”

But their role is to prevent, treat and rehabilitate injuries in any active person, not just athletes.

“We’re also in the industrial setting. We’re really there to mitigate chronic use injuries. Athletic trainers put together preventive rehab models, prevention exercises, activities and stretching to mitigate the risk of workers having issues,” says Kara. “We’re also in the tactical setting, or the military. You can find us in orthopedic and sports medicine clinics, and sometimes, physical therapy clinics.”

Anyone returning to activity after an injury or trying to prevent future injuries can find these experts at Beacon Health & Fitness in our Wellness Surround Care team.

What is the role of a PT?

After an ATC handles the softball player’s broken leg or the grandparent’s heart attack, who do these patients turn to for rehabilitation? Physical therapists such as Thomas Henry, PT, MHS, OCS.

“Physical therapy is a health care profession concerned with human function and movement and maximizing physical potential,” Tom explains. “Physical therapists diagnose and treat individuals of all ages, from newborns to patients at the end of life. Our patients may have acute injuries, developmental disabilities or even degenerative conditions that we evaluate from a movement perspective. Then, we develop a treatment plan to correct their deficits in strength, flexibility, proprioception and overall movement pattern.”

But PTs also care for people who simply want to become healthier and prevent future problems.  The role of PTs is to rehabilitate individuals after an injury, traumatic event or surgery to get them to their goals, whether that’s running a marathon again or living independently. But this kind of work cannot be done by the PT alone. It requires dedication from the patient.

“Our role is to teach patients to treat themselves. A lot of folks come in thinking we’re going to do something to make them feel better,” Tom says. “But more often, rehab is something they have to participate in. It’s teaching them how to do what they need to feel their best.”

Collaborating in the community – and at Beacon

Role similarities help experts like Kara and Tom collaborate. “We both work hands-on and spend a lot of time with the patients. We can see things sometimes that doctors don’t pick up on, or patients’ pain behaviors and motivations. But we both see a different side of that,” Tom says.

It’s that difference that adds up to patient benefit. “With therapy, you’re only allowed so much per your insurance. And athletic trainers are with athletes five days a week. So we work very closely with the physical therapists to stretch that out,” says Kara. “If patients can see both of us longer, they’re usually better off.”

At Beacon, the collaboration between these roles – and the impact it has on athletes  – shines. “You get comprehensive care at Beacon. I can call our docs and physical therapists and have answers for my athlete just like that. If you go to PT with Tom, we talk back and forth, I see his notes and I coordinate your care with him,” Kara says. “It really is comprehensive care, and we work really well as a team.”

Tom understands the value of this collaboration firsthand. “I was in this community when we didn’t have athletic trainers in the field. I remember thinking, we really need people in the schools. Now we’ve got athletic trainers, and I never want to go back,” Tom says.

“Just the athletic trainer communicating to the physician really helps. You can get that much more information for the patient. All the pieces of the puzzle fall together. And that’s what we’ve got at Beacon.”