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Athletic Trainer Vs. Physical Therapist

Athletic trainers and physical therapists are medical professionals who help people recover from injury, but there are also some key differences between these professions. This article compares the roles of athletic trainers and physical therapists.

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Comparing Athletic Trainers to Physical Therapists

Although athletic trainers and physical therapists both focus on the physical health of individuals, athletic trainers are limited to working with athletes. Physical therapists earn a substantially higher salary and must also complete several more years of postsecondary study to prepare for their careers.

Job Title Educational Requirements Median Salary* (2016) Job Outlook* (2014-2024)
Athletic Trainer Bachelor's Degree $45,630 21%
Physical Therapist Doctoral Degree $85,400 34%

Source: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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Responsibilities of Athletic Trainers vs. Physical Therapists

Athletic trainers and physical therapists may both work with people who have experienced a physical injury. One of the key differences between these professionals is that athletic trainers specifically focus on working with athletes, while physical therapists may work with patients of all ages who have been affected by injuries or illnesses. Athletic trainers try to prevent injuries as part of their duties, but physical therapists typically see patients only after they've had a medical issue and must focus on helping those patients recover and then teach them how to try to prevent further injuries. Athletic trainers work under the supervision of a medical doctor, but physical therapists are doctors and are able to diagnose patients and make determinations about their treatment independently.

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers work with athletes to help prevent injuries. When injuries do occur, they may be involved with diagnosing the injury and developing a treatment plan. A license or certification may be required to work in this field, and athletic trainers must have a bachelor's degree. Since they regularly work with people who are injured, athletic trainers need to be thorough in their assessments of their patients and communicate effectively with the patient, their coach and their doctor as needed. They may work outside and attend sporting events or practices, or they may work in a hospital or doctor's office and their hours may vary widely depending on where they're employed.

Job responsibilities of an athletic trainer include:

  • Preparing athletes for practice or competition
  • Assessing injuries
  • Implementing strategies to prevent injuries, such as using braces
  • Documenting injuries and treatments
  • Preparing an appropriate treatment plan for athletes who are injured

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists must complete several years of postsecondary study to earn a doctoral degree in physical therapy and they need to be licensed. Their work involves diagnosing and treating patients who are ill or injured, and they develop strategies to help their patients recover and improve their mobility. This may involve physically assisting patients. Many physical therapists work in offices or hospitals, and it's common for them to work standard daytime hours with occasional weekend or evening shifts. They may work in medical offices but perform a lot of physical tasks in their work and need to be prepared to be physically active throughout their day.

Job responsibilities of a physical therapist include:

  • Determining their patient's condition
  • Monitoring their patient's movements to help identify mobility issues
  • Preparing a treatment plan for their patient
  • Teaching patients exercises
  • Monitoring and documenting their patient's progress

Related Careers

Since paramedics provide initial treatment to people who've been injured, those who are considering a career as an athletic trainer may be interested in that profession as well. Another career option for those considering physical therapy is to become an occupational therapist, since occupational therapists may also diagnose and treat people affected by injury or illness.

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