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Physical Therapists vs. Athletic Trainers: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Differences

November 3rd, 2023 | 4 min. read

Physical Therapists vs. Athletic Trainers: A Comprehensive Guide to Understanding the Differences
Chris Brandt

Chris Brandt

Licensed Physical Therapist, PT, DPT // Director of Marketing and Sales // Certified Dry Needling Specialist // EW Motion Therapy Homewood

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Navigating the world of healthcare and wellness can be complex, especially when you need specialized care. Two professionals you might encounter in your wellness journey are physical therapists and athletic trainers. While they may seem similar at first glance, these two professions differ in many crucial aspects, such as their educational requirements and the conditions they treat. In this comprehensive guide, we'll break down the key distinctions to help you make an educated decision on which professional is best suited to meet your needs.


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Educational requirements for physical therapists


Educational pathways

To become a physical therapist, one must first earn a bachelor's degree, often in a related field like biology or kinesiology, though it's not strictly required. After completing an undergraduate degree, aspiring physical therapists must earn a Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree from an accredited program, which typically takes three more years. The DPT program is an extensive course of study that covers topics ranging from anatomy and biomechanics to differential diagnosis and evidence-based practice.


Licensure and continuing education

After earning a DPT degree, candidates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination (NPTE) to become licensed practitioners. Furthermore, physical therapists are often required to complete continuing education to maintain their licensure and stay up-to-date with the latest advancements in the field. This continual learning allows physical therapists to offer their patients the most current and effective treatments.


Educational requirements for athletic trainers


Educational pathways

In contrast to physical therapists, athletic trainers usually require a minimum of a bachelor’s degree in athletic training from an accredited program to get started in the field. However, many athletic trainers today also opt for master's degrees to enhance their skills and job prospects. Educational programs for athletic trainers cover subjects like injury prevention, emergency care, and therapeutic intervention.


Licensure and certification

Like physical therapists, athletic trainers also need to be certified to practice. This involves passing the Board of Certification (BOC) exam and adhering to state licensure requirements, which may include additional exams and continuing education. Like physical therapists, athletic trainers often participate in ongoing education to stay current with new techniques and treatments.


Conditions treated by physical therapists


Chronic and acute conditions

Physical therapists treat a broad range of conditions that may be either chronic or acute. These can include musculoskeletal issues like back pain, neurological conditions like stroke, and even cardiopulmonary diseases. Physical therapists use various techniques, such as manual therapy, modalities, and specific exercises, to help improve their patient’s function and quality of life.


Post-surgical rehabilitation

Another significant aspect of physical therapy is post-surgical rehabilitation. Whether you’ve had a joint replacement or spinal surgery, a tailored physical therapy program can help you regain your mobility and strength, reducing the risk of complications and promoting faster recovery.


Conditions treated by athletic trainers


Sports-related Injuries

Athletic trainers primarily focus on the treatment and prevention of sports-related injuries. They are often the first healthcare providers on the scene when an injury occurs during athletic activity, providing immediate care and evaluating the severity of the injury.


Performance enhancement

Beyond injury care, athletic trainers also work closely with athletes to improve their performance. This may include implementing targeted exercise programs, advising on proper nutrition, and offering techniques to improve mental toughness. Their role is rooted in the healthcare and athletic performance worlds.


Which professional is right for you?


Consider your needs

When deciding between a physical therapist and an athletic trainer, it's essential to consider your specific needs. If you’re recovering from surgery or need treatment for a chronic condition, a physical therapist may be the right choice. On the other hand, if you're an athlete looking to prevent injuries or improve your performance, an athletic trainer could be more aligned with your goals.


Seek personalized care

Remember that physical therapists and athletic trainers are trained professionals dedicated to improving your health and wellness. Always consult healthcare providers for a personalized treatment plan tailored to your needs.


While physical therapists and athletic trainers play vital roles in healthcare and wellness, they have different educational backgrounds and areas of expertise. By understanding these distinctions, you can choose the best professional to assist you in your wellness journey. Whether you aim to recover from an injury, manage a chronic condition, or improve your athletic performance, knowing the differences can guide you to the right path for your healthcare needs. Our team at EW Motion Therapy loves helping athletes improve performance and prevent injuries through individualized, sport-specific programming. If you’re curious about what else physical therapy can do for you, click the button below to download our answers to 20 frequently asked questions.


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