What are the 5 stages of rehabilitation in sport?

The goal of physical rehabilitation is to restore physical health, quality of life, and overall wellness.
a physio performing sports rehabilitation

The goal of physical rehabilitation is to restore physical health, quality of life, and overall wellness to the patient, whilst minimising the risk of future injury. Sports related injuries are one of the most common types of injuries, and typically affect the musculoskeletal system. This includes bones, muscles, ligaments, tendons, and soft tissues. All these parts help to support body weight and enable movement. The recovery process following a sports related injury can be a long and difficult journey without the structure of a rehabilitation process. A rehabilitation process must occur in stages, with each stage addressing significant rehabilitation goals that align with the healing process. While sports injury treatment does not take a one-size-fits-all approach, there are some general guidelines to follow in order to maximise the chances of a successful recovery.

  • Rest and protect the injury
  • Restore joint mobility, muscular movements, and range of motion
  • Rebuilding muscle strength and stamina
  • Reconnecting to coordination.
  • Rebuilding sport-specific technical movements


1) Rest and protect the injury

The initial phase of the rehabilitation process is to protect the injured area from any risk of further injury or trauma. Signs that further trauma has occurred can include swelling, inflammation, reduced range of motion, muscle weakness, or joint and muscle tenderness. In addition to this, you should also focus on addressing pain symptoms, offloading any movement, and resting the affected area during this stage.

It should be noted that to rest your injury you do not need to be bedridden or cease all daily activities. Studies show that functional movement training using alternative methods can be beneficial post-injury, and keep your muscles deconditioned, without aggravating the injured area. An example of this is running in the pool rather than on land, to maintain muscle strength, without risk of re-injury.

Bandaging or placing a cast over the injury is another great way to prevent further damage, as well as infection. These actions can also help in immobilising the body part and encouraging rest. Applying an ice pack can reduce inflammation and prevent swelling, and taking an analgesic or anti-inflammatory may also be helpful for pain relief.


2) Restore joint mobility, muscular movements, and range of motion

Muscular strength relies on the body’s joint mobility and range of motion. The muscles work together with joints to flex, stretch, exert, and respond. After an injury, whether due to tissue healing or simply non-use, the injured area may feel stiff and movement may even cause some significant pain and discomfort.

After allowing time to rest, protect, and for swelling and pain to decrease, the next step is to focus on restoring your full range of motion in the affected joint. Throughout this return to flexibility it is normal to experience slight discomfort, however significant pain should not be present.

To restore joint mobility, muscular movements, and range of motion, a physiotherapist will use design a rehabilitation program with activity targeting muscle stretching, flexibility training, and therapeutic exercise. Your physiotherapist may also recommend joint mobility and range of motion exercises that can be performed from the comfort of your home.


3) Rebuilding muscle strength and stamina

This stage of rehabilitation is focused on rebuilding muscle strength, stamina, and cardiovascular endurance. By this point, damaged or dead tissue will have been replaced with new tissue that is not as resilient. Therefore, when recovering from a sports injury you may experience muscle fatigue or lack of stamina. The longer the time spent away from training, the longer the recovery process. A conditioning process will begin to remodel and strengthen new tissue, allow the injured athlete to return to peak form.

When rebuilding strength and stamina load progression is key; you want to prevent any avoidable setbacks. Bodyweight exercises can re-forge the mid-body connection, whilst isometric exercise such as a plank or glute bridge can help rebuild strength in a targeted area. Unique modalities or low-load exercises are also an option for this stage. For example, blood flow restriction training is designed to induce high muscle fatigue without the strain of heavy weights.

During this training, your physiotherapist will watch for physical cues such as exercise form and posture, along with breath hitching to ensure you are not taking on more than you are ready for.


4) Reconnecting to coordination

Proprioception is our body’s ability to put together movement, action, and location intuitively and automatically. It accounts for all movement and gestures we make day-to-day, without thinking twice. Sporting activity typically involves an array of complex movements that require spatial awareness and the specific positioning of limbs at any given time. With sports injuries, lesions can occur to the musculoskeletal frame that causes changes in proprioceptive mechanisms. As a result, injured athletes may struggle to adjust muscular movements correctly and maintain balance.

Changes to proprioceptive mechanisms can be restored through specific exercises that address concerns such as balance and hand-eye coordination. Restoring neuromuscular control and spatial awareness will reduce risk of re-injury and assist in a person’s return to sport.


5) Rebuilding sport-specific technical movements

Once you have advanced to the final stage of the rehabilitation process, you can get back to performing complex movements that are sport-specific. Collaboratively, your physiotherapist and personal trainer, will help you to perform movements such as rotation, swinging, catching, hitting, cutting, pivoting, and turning through sports specific training.

Your sport-specific training will also assist with injury prevention, focusing on the conditions or movements that may have damaged or aggravated the affected area initially. Once this final step of sports injury rehabilitation is completed and you have mastered your sport-specific technical movements, under the guidance of a physiotherapist and personal trainer you may begin your gradual return to sport.


Looking for more information on sports injuries?

It is important to consult with a trained physiotherapist to receive an accurate diagnosis regarding your injury. Call one of our professionals today on 1800 777 247 or visit our booking portal to find a local AHP Physio clinic near you.


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