Have you ever wondered: What does a physical therapist actually do? Aren’t they just for people who have had surgery? Don't they just do massage? How can they possibly help me with my overhead sport? These are some of the questions we hear all the time from athletes.
Well, let's clear this up. Physical therapists are movement experts who optimize quality of life through prescribed exercises, hands-on care, and patient education. Some physical therapists pursue advanced specialization in helping athletes with overhead sports, like volleyball, baseball, tennis, swimming, gymnastics, and track & field events.
Many of these "sports injury specialists" got into physical therapy as a career, after sustaining and recovering from their own overhead injuries. I can include myself among this group. As a former varsity softball player at Cornell University, I have a special interest in overhead athletes of all levels, genders and ages. You can read more about my story here.
As an overhead athlete, you put unique stresses on your body. Therefore, you could benefit from the observant eyes, skilled hands, and thoughtful exercises of a physical therapist in order to stay healthy and at the top of your game. A qualified physical therapist can be your "go-to" person to work on your musculoskeletal system on a preventative basis, not just when an injury crisis strikes.
Here are 5 reasons an overhead athlete should consider seeing a physical therapist:
Many athletes experience aches and pains during training, practice, or games. But pain shouldn’t be a normal part of your sport. If you are actively experiencing pain, it’s a sign that one part of your body is taking more stress than it is able to withstand. Many things may cause imbalanced forces in the body — altered rotator cuff control, poor core stability, improper shoulder blade mechanics, lack of single leg balance, decreased coordination... the list goes on. Oftentimes, overhead athletes experience shoulder or elbow pain, but that doesn’t mean these areas are the root cause of the symptoms. A physical therapist can perform a full-body evaluation to determine not only the exact site of injury, but the underlying reasons why the pain is occurring, and develop a plan to get you back to pain-free play.
2. I just can’t throw, swing or spike like I used to...
Sometimes you may feel like you just don’t have the accuracy, speed, or control that you once had. But why? This is usually a sign that your body isn’t able to coordinate your movements optimally to produce the right amount of force or precise control over your arm. Your brain also has to coordinate with your muscles to turn the right thing on, in the right amount, at the right time...all while your arm moves REALLY fast! We can take a look at what is doing too much, what isn’t doing enough, and help rediscover neuromuscular balance in your body.
3. I want to stay healthy in the off-season
We all know the bittersweet relief of finishing your last game of the season. And yes, that feeling is a lot more satisfying if your last game was winning a championship. We take time off, we play other sports, we go out of town with our families. And then all of a sudden, it’s time for your next practice. The off-season is a perfect time to be evaluated by a physical therapist. We will evaluate your movement to find weaknesses, tightness, areas that lack coordination, and work on them while you’re not competing on a regular basis. It’s the best time to hit the reset button to prime yourself for success in the next season — to pick up a couple extra mph on your pitch or serve, improve the power behind your jump set, or throw the javelin an extra inch.
4. I was injured last year, and I want to make sure I’m back to 100%
Rehabilitating an injury can be a long battle, challenging you mentally and physically to stick with it to get you back to the sport you love. Sometimes we are nervous to get back to throwing or swinging or hitting. What if the pain comes back? What if I can’t get back to where I was before I was hurt? We are here to evaluate your movement beginning with the site of your injury, and looking at the entire body, to determine how close you are to 100%. If we find any gaps, we will put together a plan to address these areas and make sure you can confidently step back on the field or court next season.
5. I’ve never had any injuries and I want to keep it that way!
So you’ve always been healthy? That’s awesome, and we want it to stay that way too. As an overhead athlete, you are constantly performing an asymmetrical movement, which places stress unevenly throughout the body. And that’s OK, as long as your body is equipped to handle it! A physical therapist can perform an in-depth movement analysis to compare the strength and stability of your right compared to your left, your core compared to your extremities and your local stability muscles compared to your big global movers. Based on the findings, we can develop a preventative program to keep you injury-free.
Whether you’re experiencing an acute injury, are trying to optimize your performance for next season, or just want to make sure everything looks good, we’re here for you. Physical therapists have some form of direct access in most states, so you can come directly to see us without a prescription — it’s easy!
Working with overhead athletes is actually not a big part of a physical therapist’s education. It is a specialization requiring much further study, training and practice following graduation. Make sure you take time to find a physical therapist who has a specific interest in and knowledge of overhead athletes to be sure your unique needs are met.
You can learn more about this topic by visiting our Overhead Athlete page.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.