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Man holding knee in pain.

Sports injuries happen to our bodies more often than we would like. Injuries can occur whether you are competing on a team or doing regular exercise. But the body is not the only thing affected by an injury.

Injuries also impact the way we feel. Depending on the person and how bad the damage is, emotions can hit hard. You may feel bad because you cannot take part in the activity you enjoy. For some athletes, their sport is part of their identity, and they lose a sense of themselves if they can no longer play. If sports are the source of friendships, not joining in might leave you feeling lonely or left out.

Most people think of physical therapy to address pain, improve movement, and get back to their sport. However, physical therapists also can help with the emotional and mental effects of an injury.

Emotional Response to Injury

Your favorite sport can become a part of who you are. Your goals for improving or competing can be a big part of life. Your sport may be a source of joy. However, when an injury occurs, your ability to continue your sport may seem uncertain. You also may feel alone and separated from your team. Some people feel depressed or fear they may not play again or at the same level as before. These are all normal feelings.

The recovery process can include bouts of anger, sadness, frustration, and lack of motivation. Most people have ups and downs but cope well. For some people, though, these mental health factors can have an impact on recovery. Part of recovery is to find ways to bring back what was positive about your sport for you. Physical therapists understand how mental and physical wellness go together. They can help you address some of the emotional responses as well as your physical recovery.

The Role of Physical Therapy

Physical therapists play a role in both physical and mental recovery after a sports injury. They know that when your body is injured, your mind can hurt too. They will work with you to help you recover to the fullest extent possible.

A physical therapist can teach you ways to stay as active as possible during recovery, which can help your mental wellness. They will coach and encourage you and help you set goals to achieve small wins along the way. Physical therapists can help you to stay focused on the positives.

Physical therapy treatment for sports injuries may include hands-on care as well as:

  • Balance, strength, and mobility exercises.
  • Patient education. A physical therapist can help you understand your injury and the recovery process and help you stay positive.
  • Monitoring your progress and the emotional aspects of recovery to help your body and mind work together.
  • Helping you set realistic goals that help you improve and stay focused during your recovery journey.
  • Suggesting ways for you to stay involved with your sport or as part of the team while you recover.
  • Recommending safe physical activities that you can do while you recover. They also will tell you what activities to avoid.

Many people come out of physical therapy and injury stronger, more fit, and more focused than before. Physical therapists can look for weaknesses and muscle imbalances that may have affected your past performance. They provide strategies to prevent future injuries. Physical therapists also can recommend ways to build strength while you recover that may help to improve performance when you return to your primary sport. You can contact a physical therapist directly for an evaluation. To find a physical therapist in your area, visit Find a PT.

Tips for Managing the Physical and Mental Aspects of a Sports Injury

Try to be realistic about your injury and the time it will take to recover. Recovery times vary. Your recovery will depend on the type of injury, whether you had surgery, and the demands of the sport to which you wish to return. You may have very high expectations, but it is important not to push yourself beyond what your physical therapist recommends.

Here are some tips to consider:

  • Talk to your physical therapist about your goals, anxieties, and concerns. They will listen. Often people feel better talking about their situation.
  • Set realistic goals based on guidance from your physical therapist. Work with your physical therapist to develop short- and long-term goals that move you forward.
  • Expect that you may have minor setbacks along your path to recovery. Setbacks are normal, but you might need help to overcome them. Your physical therapist can help you address these setbacks.
  • Follow instructions for how much force you can put on your injury.
  • Only begin a gradual return to your regular activity once your physical therapist says it’s safe.
  • Stay active. Your physical therapist can recommend ways to help you keep your fitness during recovery. Staying active also can reduce the mental stress of being injured.
  • Learn as much as you can about your injury and how people recover.

For some people, feelings of loss after an injury can overwhelm them. If you have a severe mental health response, or turn to alcohol or drugs, seek the help of a licensed sports psychologist or counselor. If you feel hopeless, or have thoughts of suicide, contact your local crisis hotline, or use the resources below.

Physical therapists are movement experts. They improve quality of life through hands-on care, patient education, and prescribed movement. 

Find a PT Near You!

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Mind, body, and sport: how being injured affects mental health. NCAA Sport Science Institute. . Accessed June 30, 2021.

Putukian M. The psychological response to injury in student athletes: a narrative review with a focus on mental health. Br J Sports Med. 2016;50(3):145–148. Article Summary in PubMed.

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