This content is brought to you in partnership with OrthoCarolina, one of the nation's leading orthopedic practices with offices across the Southeast.

We see it happen year after year: people set lofty New Year's Resolutions pertaining to fitness, then instead of easing their way toward that goal slowly, they run at it at full-speed and end up with an injury. 

When you're dealing with a sports injury, it can be tough to know whether it's something you can manage on your own or if you should seek the help of a physical therapist. While there are certainly some injuries that don't require the attention of a medical professional, you don't want to misjudge and end up in even more pain by not pursuing physical therapy when you should have. 

We reached out to three physical therapists at OrthoCarolina - Donna Goodwin, Jennifer Hallenbeck, and Molly Dudick - to learn more about when you should and shouldn't see a physical therapist after sustaining a sports injury.

What Are Some Common Reasons People Might Pursue Physical Therapy?

According to these three experienced PTs, people typically reach out to a physical therapist when they're experiencing pain in their: 

  • Back
  • Neck
  • Shoulders
  • Kneecaps, or the front of their knees
  • Heels
  • Ankles

Beyond that, though, they say that if your injury displays any of the following signs or symptoms, you should definitely consider seeking medical attention: 

  • Swelling
  • Stiffness (which could indicate swelling inside the joint)
  • Weak and painful movements around the injured site
  • Instability when walking or climbing stairs
  • A "catching" sensation in joint movement or during daily tasks

What "Red Flags" Indicate That You Need to Seek Medical Attention for an Injury?  

While the symptoms listed above indicate that physical therapy might be a good idea, the following should be considered "red flags," meaning you should contact a medical professional right away: 

  • Pain with numbness and tingling to the front and side of the lower leg - if you experience this when running, it may indicate that you have anterior compartmental syndrome

  • Waking up in the night with pain that does not dissipate as you change your sleeping position
  • Inability to bear weight through one of your extremities
  • Pain in the lower leg with numbness - this could indicate nerve impingement in your back 

What Are Some Injuries That Can Be Managed On Your Own, Without Seeing a Physical Therapist?  

If you're experiencing acute back pain that doesn't last for more than a few days, you can manage that injury on your own by icing it for 15-20 minutes several times throughout the day, in addition to "Active Resting," which means frequently changing your position up through the day with gentle walking, or movement within a pain-free range. 

Additionally, if you sprain your ankle, you can typically treat that injury on your own using the RICE method: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. You should also move your ankle gently within a pain-reduced range to decrease swelling and assist with joint awareness. 

You can treat anterior knee pain on your own, as well. All you need to do is take a break from physical activity, ice the injury, and use a patellar knee sleeve. It's also recommended that you try some quad sets, straight leg raises, and hamstring and calf stretches.

After Going to Physical Therapy, What Can You Do On  Your Own to Prevent Injuries Moving Forward?  

These physical therapists recommend that to prevent sports injuries, you continue a comprehensive exercise routine 4-6 days per week, including a combination of cardiovascular training, strengthening, stretching, and balance and coordination exercises. Additionally, they encourage you to practice mindfulness, including meditation or gentle yoga. 

Their other primary recommendation? "Be aware of your body in space to prevent injury, and only allow your body to perform those activities for which it is prepared or trained to do," they advised. "If you have not done yoga or weight training before, take a class that is easy first, or meet with a staff member at the gym to learn how to use the equipment."  

Do You Need to Be Injured to See a Physical Therapist?   

You absolutely do not need to be injured to seek physical therapy! A physical therapist can assess your overall strength, flexibility, and recruitment of key muscle groups that help protect joints and prevent injuries. Then they can help you develop a program that will improve performance while reducing the risk of injury when performing your specific sport or activity.

"We have a wealth of knowledge in prevention-based routines," explained the three OrthoCarolina PTs we interviewed. "Sometimes, it is best to see a PT before you start an activity, as they can assess your specific body and the stresses that may be placed on it in order to prevent an injury, or decrease the likelihood of an area being strained." 

​What Physical Therapy Treatments Should You Consider? Ask the Experts  

Whether you've recently experienced an injury, need help with recovery after tough workouts, or are simply experiencing chronic pain and need help  managing it, OrthoCarolina can help. Make an appointment at a location near you to start getting the treatment you need.