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What are the 5 Stages of Rehabilitation in Sport?

Updated: Feb 6

The road of recovery post sports injury can take many paths. Most athletes strive to return to their peak or in fact come back better than before…

Utilising the correct rehabilitation program is key to assisting athletes achieve their goal. Not only do we need to rehab the injury itself but ensure the athlete maintains the fitness level required to perform at their best when returning to the field of pitch. Often this is the primary role of the Sports Physiotherapist and something we manage regularly at Body Fit Physiotherapy.

The 5 Stages of Rehabilitation in Sports

Successful rehabilitation programs need to be responsive, progressive, and personalised. Each athlete is different, and each sport is unique therefore there is not a one-size-fits-all recovery process.

Stage #1: Rest and Protecting Injured Tissue

The first phase of rehabilitation involves resting and protecting the injury. This generally includes the principles of RICER:

R – Rest

I – Ice

C – Compression

E – Elevation

R – Repeat

Depending on the type of injury you may also look to unload the injury utilising crutches or a brace. It must be said that rest doesn't necessarily mean being completely bedridden or stopping regular activities of daily living. In fact, research shows that in most cases it is important to stay active through the rehab process. How to modify your activity really depends on the exact injury you have sustained.

Stage #2: Regaining Mobility and Movement

After a period of immobilisation or modified activity it is common to lose some joint and muscle range of motion. This is commonly seen with ankle stiffness post removing a moon boot or cam boot. You will also commonly find wrist stiffness post removal of a plaster or cast. After the initial rest period it is imperative to regain functional full range of motion before progressing to the next phase of rehab. If this is not achieved, you place yourself at greater risk of developing further injury. To restore mobility and range of motion your physiotherapist will use a combination of muscle / joint stretches, hands on treatment and joint mobilisations to regain this range of movement.

Stage #3: Strength and Stamina

Once normal joint range has been recovered it is time to build the required strength and muscle endurance. Initially you may utilise body weight exercises but as your strength progresses it is necessary to increase the level of resistance using weights. Resistance training has been a popular researched topic and there are countless articles proving the long term injury prevention benefits it has.

Stage #4: Proprioception

As your strength continues to build your physiotherapist will start to challenge your proprioception system. In this phase we are looking to improve your bodies awareness of itself in space. Often this phase incorporates various balance exercises.

Stage #5: Rebuilding Sport-Specific Technical Movements

At this advanced stage of rehabilitation, you will be focussing on the nuances of your chosen sport. This may include agility work incorporating balls or skills such as tackling in Australian Rules Football or Rugby.

In conclusion Sports rehabilitation encompasses the diagnosing, treating, and even preventing of injuries that come from playing sports. With the phases above we have broken it down into 5 but when treating an athlete with an injury they will likely blur the lines between these phases as they undertake their rehabilitation journey.

If you are wanting to return to your sport quicker, stronger, faster and reduce your risk of further injury we do recommend consulting a Sports Physiotherapist.

Written By:

Tim Delvins

Sports Physiotherapist North Adelaide

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