The Difference Between an Athletic Trainer and a Physical Therapist

When it comes to healthcare professionals, it’s easy to get confused by the numerous titles and roles. Two professionals that are often mistaken for each other are athletic trainers and physical therapists. While both play a crucial role in helping people recover from injuries and improve their physical well-being, there are significant differences between the two. In this article, we will highlight the dissimilarities between an athletic trainer and a physical therapist, shedding light on their unique skill sets and responsibilities.

Education and Training

An important distinction between athletic trainers and physical therapists lies in their educational backgrounds.

An athletic trainer typically holds a bachelor’s or master’s degree in athletic training, sports science, or a related field. They undergo extensive training in anatomy, exercise physiology, biomechanics, and injury prevention. Additionally, they are required to complete clinical rotations, gaining hands-on experience in various healthcare settings, such as sports teams or rehabilitation clinics.

In contrast, a physical therapist must hold a doctoral degree in physical therapy (DPT). This includes completing an undergraduate degree followed by a three-year doctoral program. Physical therapy students undergo comprehensive coursework in areas such as anatomy, physiology, neuroscience, and kinesiology. They also participate in clinical rotations, allowing them to develop practical skills in diagnosing and treating movement-related disorders.

Focus and Scope of Practice

Athletic trainers and physical therapists have different areas of expertise, which influence their scope of practice.

An athletic trainer primarily focuses on the prevention, assessment, and rehabilitation of injuries in active individuals. They work closely with athletes to provide immediate care for acute injuries, first aid, and injury prevention strategies. Athletic trainers are often found on the sidelines of sports events, ready to evaluate and provide care to injured players. They may also provide education on exercises and help individuals with the proper use of equipment to prevent injuries.

On the other hand, physical therapists are experts in diagnosing and treating a wide range of musculoskeletal and movement-related disorders. Their scope of practice extends beyond athletes and covers people of all ages and activity levels. Physical therapists work with patients recovering from surgery, stroke, or other debilitating conditions. They focus on restoring mobility, reducing pain, and improving overall quality of life. Physical therapists utilize manual techniques, therapeutic exercises, and modalities such as heat or cold therapy to help patients regain strength and function.

Certification and Licensing

In the United Kingdom, athletic trainers (known as sports therapists) and physical therapists are regulated by different governing bodies.

Athletic trainers in the UK must be registered with the UK Sports Therapy Organisation (UKSTO) or the Society of Sports Therapists (SST). These organizations ensure that trainers meet specific educational and clinical requirements before they can provide professional services. Registration typically involves completing an accredited sports therapy program, along with what is known as a “baseline qualification,” which demonstrates competency in emergency first aid and life support.

Physical therapists in the UK, on the other hand, must be registered with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC) to practice legally. The HCPC ensures that physical therapists meet the necessary professional standards and adhere to a code of conduct. Registered physical therapists must also complete regular professional development activities to maintain their registration.

Collaboration and Team Approach

While athletic trainers and physical therapists have distinct roles, they often work together as part of a multidisciplinary team to provide comprehensive care to individuals.

At sports events, athletic trainers collaborate with other healthcare professionals, such as team physicians and physical therapists, to ensure prompt and effective injury management. They may refer athletes to physical therapists for further evaluation and rehabilitation, as needed. Physical therapists, in turn, collaborate with athletic trainers by providing input on exercise progression, functional training, and injury prevention strategies.


While athletic trainers and physical therapists share a common goal of helping individuals recover from injuries and improve their physical well-being, their roles and areas of expertise set them apart. Athletic trainers specialize in the prevention and rehabilitation of sports-related injuries, while physical therapists focus on a broader range of musculoskeletal and movement-related disorders. Understanding the difference between these healthcare professionals can help individuals make informed decisions about their care and ensure they receive the appropriate services for their specific needs.

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