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The Long Road to Recovery

Working in an orthopedic department in a hospital is becoming a more popular setting for ATs. Similar to other settings for ATs, observing the long road back from injury is one of the most rewarding experiences especially if the athlete is back to performing at a high level. Along that road, there are bumps and triumphs both physically and mentally. Reaching a milestone such as full range of motion is taken for granted in the non-injured population but offers a glimmer of hope for an athlete who just had Tommy John surgery or an ACL reconstruction – it means they’re on their way back to the playing field.

Getting back to the playing field is a priority for an athlete who is about to or has already undergone surgery. Most of the time, the athlete senses something wrong in their body and knows they need to get it fixed; meanwhile, other athletes may not be so in tune with their body and may not know the reason for their decreased performance. One aspect that we don’t talk about as much as a society in terms of athletes is the mental toughness one has to possess to endure a year off from sports to get healthy again. It is easy to praise an athlete for their desire and laser-like focus in a clutch situation. However, that same athlete may fail to get beyond a mental hurdle and may even breakdown when they cannot perform a straight leg raise after their ACL has been “fixed”. It has been my experience that many highly competitive performers become frustrated with their progress, or lack thereof, when it is not easily measured.

How can we keep our athletes on task when they are down in the dumps and feel that there is no way they’re going to get better? I’m sure we have all read about the success stories post-injury. Not everyone is open to talking about the failures they had to overcome to get back to the field; or if they do, it is very brief. For every success story, there are road bumps along the way whether it is a setback, different injury, lack of noticeable progress, etc. What have you, as an AT, done to help your athlete get beyond that? Or if you didn’t know what to do, what did you do in that situation and how/what did you learn from it?


  • Frank,

    Great post, the road to recovery is definitely a long an tough road to travel. In my experiences every athlete is different in how they approach this recovery.

    -In some cases its keeping them focused on the short term and long term goals that can drive the individual. With these athletes you have to constinantly show them they are getting better with evidence, they need to see their results measured frequently.

    -Some athletes need to feel like they are stil involved with the team in some way shape or form. So keeping them doing activity while practice is going on, getting them in the huddle during practices, having them do drils that involve their ball or apparatus keeps them aware they are still in it, and keeping it relevant keeps their heads up and eyes on the prize

    -Some athletes need reassurance. These are the tougher cookies to crack as they can just be a wreck. You have to be positive with this type of patient or athlete. You may even have to go the full distance of doing two types of scheduling:

    1.schedule them so they are only with you and they can have your full undividied attention so they know that they arent going through their injury alone


    2.Schedule them with a fellow patient who is goig through something similiar or is a very motivated patient who is going to go through their recovery "with" them so they can have a recovery buddy so to speak

    -Some athletes need a challenge. These patients can be tough too because they want to run before they can stand let alone walk. These are the patients that you have to challenge with tasks that wont exacerbate their injury and keep them from boredom because they will either give up on the process cause its too boring or going too slow. You almost need to gamify the process with this type. Use tools like the wiifit board or something to this effect so they can "keep score" to keep them stimulated.

    When it comes to not knowing what to do sometimes its bes to ask a fellow colleague or do some research on the topic. Their are so many resources out their to help you help your athlete so that where there is a will there is a way.
    Audric Warren MS, ATC, CAFS, NASM-PES, NASM-CES
  • Audric – I apologize for my severely delayed response. Thank you for your reply on this topic. You bring up a number of good ideas and points. I really liked the idea of scheduling a session with two athletes that are going through the same thing. They see that they are not the only one in their situations and if they are on the same team then it could build more camaraderie. Athletes are competitive people by nature so the desire to push one another to get better. If one of the two reaches a milestone, the other may want to push harder to catch and even get beyond their counterpart. The trick is keeping it challenging and fun at the same time which can be a challenge in itself.

    One of the more important comments you made, in my opinion, was that we should reach out to colleagues or do research on the topic. There are select professionals who are too proud to admit they do not know enough about a certain topic. Yet they will proceed with whatever type of treatment they deem fit. I’m partial to asking colleagues how they handle situations and what the outcome is. For lack of a better phrase – everything is outcome based. If the athlete has a good rehab and can RTP successfully, then everyone is happy about the outcome. If there are bumps along the way, if they can be avoided we need to learn from it.
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