Dr. Matthew Smitley, DAT, LAT, ATC
Rehabilitating from sports injuries can be quite the complex process for any patient or clinician. Regardless of the injury, location, or its severity, a timely and appropriate progression is paramount to the success of the rehabilitation plan. Despite the seemingly endless types of injuries that may be sustained, there are several key principles that should always remain consistent in the rehabilitation plan.
1. A Strong Evaluation is Critical
Developing a strong plan in sports injury rehabilitation rests fully on one thing – a comprehensive evaluation. A simple example may be setting out on a road trip. One could simply hop in a car and attempt to drive to a destination. However, you could likely be more efficient at getting to that destination while saving time and money with a little planning like exploring different routes, assessing the terrain you’d be crossing, and determining if reaching that destination is even possible. Developing and following a rehabilitation plan is exactly like that. Determining what strengths, limitations, and co-existing conditions all contribute to getting a “lay of the land” when it comes to each case. Completing an in-depth evaluation allows a clinician to appropriately map out their plan for any athlete’s sports injury rehabilitation. Making the decision to complete an initial injury evaluation early can help prevent secondary injuries and possibly shorten one’s recovery time.
2. Trusting the Process
Just as it is taking a long road trip, there are often many routes to take. Shortcuts may exist here and there but those don’t necessarily mean that they are the best routes to take. There are many principles of rehabilitation that guide the direction of the path that clinicians and patients take. There are times that rehabilitative exercises and progress can seem slow and boring. Sometimes taking care of the “easy” things early and often makes doing harder things much easier and faster later on in the recovery process. Each guiding principle of rehabilitation has clear intention and purpose – to safely return each patient to their desired activities!
3. Going from Zero to Hero
The sports injury rehabilitation process should be progressive. Any good building has many features in its design to make it strong and reliable. Similarly, the principles of rehabilitation do the same thing. Starting with simple goals like improving perceived pain or regaining affected range of motion in a particular joint may be the keystone to progressing into the next phase. When taking part in physical activity, progressing to advanced stages of exercise like running a marathon or lifting heavy weights is built upon doing lower intensity exercises first. Sure, we can quickly progress to the advance stages and skip steps. However, ill-advised rehabilitation decisions like that lay a poor foundation that makes the rest of the proverbial building shaky and prone to further damage. Sports rehabilitation takes time in many cases – be patient!
4. Avoid the Cookies!
Developing a clear rehabilitation plan for injured athletes should be patient-specific. In other words, avoid the cookie cutter approach! While the principles of rehabilitation share common ideas, how those are applied to each individual patient should be specific to their current state and their goals for their active lifestyle. What does the patient need to be able to do in the short, intermediate, and long term timeframes? What types of activities do they value and enjoy? Each of these provide opportunities to not only determine a fixed goal to pursue but can also provide inspiration for the types and progressions of rehabilitative therapy that a clinician chooses.
When I look at important themes in learning about the rehabilitative therapy process, it’s interesting that the learning process in our Athletic Training Program is very similar to the process of sports injury rehabilitation. In order for our students to progress, they need to be able to follow an intentional progression in skills, trust the process that is laid out before them. There’s a reason for the order and style of courses that Athletic Training Students must take – sticking to the plan helps ensure better chances of success. Additionally, there’s a natural progression from foundational to advanced learning and practices. Also, our students progress in their learning to increasing levels of autonomy as they grow. We avoid the cookie cutter approach and invest in student-centered learning in nearly every aspect of what we do.
While the similarities seem uncanny, the correlations between learning and rehabilitative therapy are strong! Have a plan, trust the process, progress, and be specific. A winning combination!