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  • APT Staff

Bounce Back Faster: Physical Therapy Tips For Recovering From Sports Injuries 

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Participating in sports and physical activities comes with the inherent risk of injury. Sprains, strains, fractures, dislocations, tendon and ligament tears, and concussions are common sport injuries that can sideline athletes for weeks or months. Recovering from a sports injury requires proper initial treatment and physical therapy to restore strength, mobility, balance, and function. 


Physical therapists play a crucial role in helping injured athletes heal and return to play. Through exercises and manual techniques, physical therapists address pain and swelling, improve range of motion, retrain proper movement patterns, build strength, and progress the athlete back to sports participation. A customized physical therapy program targets the specific areas affected by the injury to facilitate tissue healing, restore normal biomechanics, rehabilitate muscle function, and prevent re-injury. 


With dedication and persistence through the physical therapy process, injured athletes can recover fully and continue pursuing their athletic goals. Physical therapy helps athletes at all levels, from youth sports to college and professional, overcome injuries and perform at their highest potential. 


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Common Sports Injuries 


Sports injuries can occur during practice or competition and range from minor to severe. Some of the most common sports injuries include: 


Sprains: A sprain refers to torn or overstretched ligaments, which are the tissues that connect bones together at a joint. Sprains often occur in the ankles, knees, and wrists. Symptoms include pain, swelling, and instability of the joint. 


Strains: A muscle or tendon strain refers to torn or overstretched muscles or tendons. Strains often occur in the hamstrings, quadriceps, calf muscles, shoulders, and neck. Symptoms include pain, muscle spasms, and weakness. 


Fractures: A fracture is a complete or incomplete crack or break in a bone. Fractures often occur in contact sports like football, as well as sports with fast starts and stops like basketball and soccer. Symptoms include severe pain, swelling, and inability to bear weight. 


ACL/MCL tears: The ACL and MCL are ligaments that stabilize the knee joint. Tears to these ligaments are common knee injuries, especially in sports that involve pivoting like basketball, football, and soccer. Symptoms include instability of the knee, pain, and swelling. 


Concussions: A concussion is a traumatic brain injury caused by a blow to the head. Concussions often occur in contact sports like football, hockey, boxing, and rugby. Symptoms include headache, dizziness, confusion, nausea, and loss of consciousness. Concussions must be properly diagnosed and treated to avoid long-term complications. 


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Initial Treatment 


The initial treatment of a sports injury often follows the PRICE protocol - Protection, Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. This helps manage pain and swelling in the immediate aftermath of an injury. 


Protection involves stabilizing the injured area with a brace, tape, or bandage to limit further damage. Protecting the injured area prevents additional injury and provides support. 


Rest means avoiding activities that aggravate the injury. This gives the damaged tissues time to begin healing without further strain. Complete rest may be necessary at first, followed by gradually increased activity. 


Ice helps decrease pain and limit swelling around the injury. Apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel for up to 20 minutes several times a day. Icing too long can cause tissue damage. 


Compression with an elastic bandage compresses the injured area to prevent swelling. Wrap snugly, but not so tight it restricts circulation. Elevating the compressed area can enhance the effects. 


Elevation involves raising the injured limb above the level of the heart. Gravity helps drain excess fluid away from the injury site, controlling inflammation and swelling. Maintain elevation as much as possible in the first 48 hours. 


Proper initial care with PRICE helps manage the immediate effects of injury, reduces pain, and sets the stage for rehabilitation. Seeking prompt medical attention is also advised to assess the severity of injury and proper treatment. 


Physical Therapy for Sports Injuries Goals 

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The main goals of physical therapy after a sports injury are to restore range of motion, rebuild strength, retrain coordinated movements, and prevent re-injury or complications. 


Restore Range of Motion 


Restoring full range of motion is crucial for complete recovery. Your physical therapist will prescribe stretching and mobility exercises to gently move the joint through its full range and break up scar tissue. This helps ensure you regain flexibility and prevents compensatory movements that could lead to overuse injuries. 


Rebuild Strength 


Injuries often cause weakness and muscle atrophy. Your PT will have you perform strength training to rebuild the muscles around the injured joint or limb. This stabilizes the area and allows you to perform sports motions safely. 


Retrain Coordinated Movements 


Sports require complex, coordinated motions. Physical therapy aims to retrain these movement patterns and reactive abilities. Agility drills, balance exercises, and sport-specific training are used to optimize control and prevent re-injury. 


Prevent Re-Injury 


A key goal is developing the flexibility, strength, and mechanics to protect against re-injury. Your PT will correct any Biomechanical faults and ensure tissues can withstand sports demands. Home exercise programs also teach you how to maintain strength gains long-term. 


Stretching Exercises 

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Stretching helps improve flexibility and range of motion in the injured area. It's important to stretch properly and avoid over-stretching to prevent further injury. Here are some common stretching exercises used in physical therapy for sports injuries: 


Hamstring Stretch 


Lie on your back with one leg extended. Loop a towel or strap around the ball of your extended foot. Gently pull back on the towel to feel a stretch in the back of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds, then relax. Repeat 3-5 times per leg. 


Calf Stretch 


Stand facing a wall with hands pressed against the wall at shoulder height. Step one leg back with a bent knee and straight foot. Keep the other leg forward with a straight knee and heel on the floor. Lean forward until you feel the stretch in your calf. Hold for 30 seconds then relax. Repeat 3-5 times per leg. 


Quadriceps Stretch 


From a standing position, bend one knee and use your hand to pull your ankle up towards your backside. Keep your knees together. You should feel the stretch in the front of your thigh. Hold for 30 seconds then relax. Repeat 3-5 times per leg. 


Shoulder Stretch 


Bring your affected arm across your chest and gently pull on your elbow to stretch the shoulder. Hold for 30 seconds then relax. Repeat 3-5 times for each shoulder. 


Lower Back Rotation 


Lie on your back with knees bent and arms out to your sides. Gently rotate your knees to one side until you feel a stretch in your lower back. Hold for 30 seconds then repeat on the other side. Complete 3-5 rotations per side. 


Strengthening Exercises 

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An important part of physical therapy for sports injuries is strengthening exercises. These help rebuild strength in the injured area so it can return to full function. The physical therapist will target the specific muscles, tendons, or ligaments affected by the injury. 


Some examples of effective strengthening exercises include: 


  • Resistance band exercises: Resistance bands provide progressive resistance and are easy to use at home. They can strengthen muscles with motions like shoulder rotations, knee extensions, hip abductions, and more. Start with lower resistance and lighter reps.    

  • Weighted exercises: Hand weights, dumbbells, kettlebells, or even household objects can add resistance to movements like lunges, squats, bicep curls, and tricep extensions. Focus on good form and building up weight slowly.    

  • Isometric exercises: Applying force against an immovable object like a wall or the floor can build isolated strength. Planks, calf raises, and glute bridges are good examples. Hold for increasingly longer durations.    

  • Aquatic exercises: The resistance of water makes it ideal for strengthening while reducing strain on joints. Popular options are water walking, kickboarding, or pool squats and lunges.    

  • Equipment exercises: Machines like leg press, chest press, lat pulldown, and more allow you to strengthen specific muscle groups. Use a comfortable weight and full range of motion. 


The physical therapist will tailor the strengthening program to the individual and adjust it over time. Maintaining good form is critical to avoid compensation patterns and re-injury. With a graduated approach, strengthening exercises build back supportive muscle and stabilize joints. 


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Balance and Proprioception 


Proprioception refers to your body's awareness of its position in space. It allows your body to make small adjustments during movement without you having to look or think about it consciously. Proprioception helps provide stability and balance. 


After an injury, your proprioceptive abilities can become impaired. Your injured joint sends inaccurate signals to your brain about where your body is in space. Your brain then has trouble coordinating smooth, controlled motions. This leads to poor balance and stability. 


Re-training your proprioceptive system is crucial for full recovery after an injury. Below are some exercises that can help improve proprioception: 


  • Single-leg balance: Stand on one leg with eyes open for 30 seconds. Increase difficulty by closing eyes or standing on an unstable surface like a pillow. Switch legs and repeat 2-3 times.    

  • Tandem stance: Stand heel-to-toe with non-injured leg in back. Maintain for 30 seconds, 2-3 reps per leg.    

  • Balance board: Perform single-leg balancing on a rigid board suspended on a hemisphere. Aim for 30-60 seconds per leg.    

  • Perturbation training: Have a partner gently push or tap you from different directions while standing. Regain balanced position quickly.    

  • Joint reposition: Close eyes while a partner places the injured joint in certain position. Replicate the position once partner releases.    

  • Agility drills: Bounding, hopping, skipping, zig-zagging motions. Start slow and increase speed. 


Re-gaining proprioceptive control is a gradual process. Be patient and stay consistent with balance exercises. Proprioception is key for preventing future injury. 


Cardiovascular Exercise  

a desk model of a heart

 While recovering from a sports injury, it's important to maintain cardiovascular fitness without further aggravating the injury. Low-impact cardio exercises are ideal for keeping the heart and lungs healthy while allowing the body to heal. 


Swimming and water workouts are excellent low-impact cardio options. The water provides resistance for a challenging workout, while reducing stress on joints, muscles, and bones. The buoyancy of the water supports body weight, minimizing impact. Swimming engages the whole body and provides an aerobic workout to maintain or improve cardiovascular endurance. 


Stationary cycling is another go-to cardio exercise during injury recovery. Cycling allows continuous movement without repetitive impact. Adjustable resistance and intensity cater to all fitness levels. Recumbent bikes place less strain on the low back. Stationary bikes can be used with a single leg to keep one side active while the other heals. 


Elliptical trainers mimic a natural running motion without the full impact of striking the ground. This non-weight bearing exercise minimizes joint stress while elevating the heart rate. The smooth action and adjustable resistance make ellipticals ideal for moderate cardio exercise during recovery. Hand rails provide balance and stability if needed. 


As the injury heals, low-impact cardio workouts will help maintain overall fitness. Consulting a physical therapist will ensure appropriate exercise selection and progression while recovering. Patience is key, allowing the body to slowly rebuild endurance and strength. 


Pain Management

a street sign that says 'PAIN RELIEF'

Managing pain is a critical part of the recovery process after a sports injury. Using different techniques can provide relief from pain and facilitate the healing process. Here are some of the main methods used in physical therapy for pain management: 



Applying ice, also known as cryotherapy, is one of the most common techniques for managing pain and swelling after an acute sports injury. Icing the injured area constricts blood vessels, which helps limit bleeding, inflammation, and pain. Cold therapy can also numb nerve endings in the injured area, providing pain relief. Typical recommendations are to ice for 10-15 minutes every 2-3 hours during the first few days after the injury. 



After the initial inflammatory period, applying heat can help improve blood flow and relax tight muscles. Heat also blocks pain signals and increases the pain threshold. Some ways to apply heat include using hot packs, warm baths, heating pads, or heat wraps. However, heat should not be used on an acute injury with significant inflammation. 



Massage can help relieve muscle tightness and spasms that may occur after an injury. Massage improves circulation in the affected area, enhancing delivery of nutrients and oxygen. It also helps reduce swelling and adhesions. Physical therapists may perform manual therapy and massage directly to the injured area. They can also recommend self-massage techniques. 


Electrical Stimulation  

Electrical stimulation uses a small electric current to trigger the body's natural painkillers called endorphins. It can also help relax tight muscles that may be contributing to pain. Types of electrical stimulation include transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) and interferential current therapy. These modalities can be used alone or in combination with other treatments. 


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Preventing Re-injury 


Proper recovery after a sports injury is crucial for preventing re-injury once you return to your sport. Here are some tips for preventing repeat injuries: 


Proper Technique 


Be sure you are using proper technique and form for your sport. For example, runners should use good running form to avoid imbalances and undue strain. Consider working with a coach or trainer to ensure you have corrected any flaws in your technique that may have contributed to injury in the first place. 


Adequate Rest 


Don't rush back too soon. Make sure you have fully recovered strength and range of motion before returning to sports. Build back up gradually rather than jumping back into intense training. Plan recovery days and don't overdo it early on. 




For some injuries, wearing a brace during activity can provide extra support and stabilization. Consult your physical therapist or athletic trainer about whether a brace would be beneficial in your situation. 




Incorporate cross-training into your routine as you return to sports. Activities like cycling, swimming, or rowing that use different motions can maintain fitness while allowing your injury site to continue healing. 


Following your physical therapist's instructions, allowing adequate recovery time, and making adjustments to technique and training will help prevent frustrating repeat injuries. Patience and self-care now will pay off with a lifetime of enjoyable athletic participation. 

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In conclusion, the comprehensive recovery from sports injuries involves a multi-faceted approach, emphasizing initial proper care, dedicated physical therapy, and careful management of activity post-injury. Through the implementation of the PRICE protocol immediately after injury, athletes can effectively minimize initial discomfort and swelling. Subsequent physical therapy plays a pivotal role in restoring function, strength, and mobility, tailoring exercises to the specific needs of the injury and individual. Crucially, the integration of proprioceptive and strength exercises helps to rebuild the injured area and prevent future injuries by enhancing the body’s stability and awareness. Moreover, maintaining cardiovascular fitness during the recovery process supports overall health and aids in a smoother return to sport. Adhering to a structured rehabilitation plan, under the guidance of skilled physical therapists, ensures that athletes can not only return to their previous levels of performance but do so with a reduced risk of re-injury. This holistic approach to sports injury recovery, emphasizing prevention, careful progression, and strengthening, is essential for athletes aiming to achieve long-term health and optimal performance in their sporting endeavors.


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