Physical Therapists and Athletic Trainers: Collaborating to Treat the Whole You

Published - May 14, 2024

Co-written by IRG Physical & Hand Therapy – Edmonds clinic director, Dr. Grace Ellison, PT
and certified athletic trainer, Daniel Wiltfong, LAT, ATC

Physical therapists (PTs) and certified athletic trainers (ATCs) collaborate to provide comprehensive care to patients, and patients might come into contact with both providers at various points during their treatment journey. They both create personalized treatment plans, monitor progress, and ensure a safe return to activity for their patients. Our co-authors describe the similarities, differences and overlap between the two.

Physical Therapists: PTs are licensed healthcare professionals trained to maintain, restore, and improve a patient’s ability to move, function, and live a more active lifestyle. They work with all types of patients, from newborn to end of life, and help them to avoid surgery and prescription drugs, manage pain and chronic conditions, and improve physical function and fitness. A new physical therapist today must graduate from an accredited Doctor of Physical Therapy program and pass a state licensure exam.

Certified Athletic Trainers: ATCs are healthcare professionals trained in injury prevention, emergent care and rehabilitation. As their name suggests, athletic trainers primarily work with athletes but can also practice in other settings such as industrial workplaces, orthopedic surgeon offices and hospitals. Athletic trainers must graduate from an accredited baccalaureate or master’s program – about 70% have a master’s degree. After graduating, ATC candidates must pass a national board exam to be certified.

When an athlete becomes injured, an athletic trainer is often the first point of contact. The ATC will complete an evaluation and may determine that physical therapy is an appropriate course of action and will refer the athlete to PT. Some rehabilitation clinics will also staff athletic trainers; while a physical therapist will complete most of a patient’s visit, they can rely on the expertise and knowledge of an in-house ATC for taping, exercises, and other general rehabilitation. Patients fortunate enough to work with both PTs and ATCs will recognize an improved quality of care.

Stepping into the reverse roles, PTs may assist ATCs on the field during an athletic event or in the treatment room. The extra hands and knowledge of rehabilitation practices leads to a higher quality of care. In emergency situations, PTs can assist the ATC in patient transfers and other essential tasks.

ATCs and PTs work together in multiple settings with a common goal of treating patients and athletes with the highest standard of care. While both professionals can be great individually, as a team they can help you become Your Best Self! IRG is proud to employ ATCs, many of whom work alongside our physical therapists. Learn more about service offerings at IRG here, including physical therapy, hand therapy, massage therapy, performance enhancement, athletic training and more.