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Getting People Back on Their Feet with A Sports Physical Therapy Career

What's a day in the life of a sports physical therapist like? For Jill M. Thein-Nissenbaum, sports physical therapist and professor of physical therapy at University of Wisconsin (Madison, WI), it's all about getting people back on their feet. "The difference between sports physical therapy and physical therapy is that usually I'm designing a very detailed rehabilitation program so the injured person can return to a specific activity," she explains. "It's more than rehabbing someone so they can get back to a desk for eight hours -- it's getting them back to their tennis swing or their long jump."

A sports physical therapy degree is required to begin a career as a sports physical therapist, and the education requirements have escalated in recent years. "Just about every sports physical therapy program requires a doctorate," says Thein-Nissenbaum. "There are a few programs that still offer master's degrees, but the trend is toward a doctorate and in a few years, that's all we'll see. Schools want to make the degree commensurate with the coursework and the rigorousness of the program, which is usually three years."

Coursework for a sports physical therapy degree includes subjects like anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, and even some physics. Clinical classes in sports therapy degree programs will teach how to perform treatments, tests, examination techniques, and various protocols. "There are many similarities between physical therapy and sports physical therapy studies," says Thein-Nissenbaum. "A sports physical therapist has to learn things like how you position your head and neck when you ride a bike or how much range of motion it requires to throw a baseball."

Though the majority of sports physical therapy is comprised of treating patients in a clinic or outpatient facility, there are times when travel is necessary. "Many sports physical therapists will go on site to do pre-participation screening for athletes," says Thein-Nissenbaum. "For example, they might go to a high school and screen athletes for things like landing techniques, flexibility, or strength. Then they can design programs to prevent injury from occurring in the first place with specific drills and activities."

According to Thein-Nissenbaum, a sports physical therapy career is a lucrative one with starting salaries in the range of $50,000-$55,000 and experienced salaries hitting as high as $90,000. But ultimately, you've got to love helping others to have a successful sports physical therapy career. "You'll spend the majority of your day in patient care," she says. "And that's really what your role is. You've got to like working with people. Some people may move on to become supervisors or administrators at a facility, but most sports physical therapists spend their time in one-on-one patient care."

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