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  • Writer's pictureJessie Dalton

Athletic Therapy vs Physiotherapy

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

I get asked a LOT what the difference between Athletic Therapy and Physiotherapy is and why I have both designations and why I don’t just get rid of my AT (Athletic Therapy) because I don’t bill under it. Some people may not like this, may not agree and it may be controversial for some but here is a short(er) version of that truth.

Athletic Therapy vs Physiotherapy

The treatment I provide whether it’s under the Athletic Therapy or Physiotherapy “heading” is really identical. One difference is as a Physio, I can use Functional Dry Needling where I cannot use that under Athletic Therapy as it is outside the scope of practice. However - my style, approach and thought process does not change.

Now a bit more into my background and why I will never gie up my Athletic Therapy designation.

Before I get into this, I want to be clear. I think every single profession has a place and as skill-set and purpose and I think we should all work together in multidisciplinary settings and work with each other’s strengths. I also acknowledge everyone’s experience is different.

To put it bluntly, I never ever wanted to ever be or have to call myself a Physiotherapist. Considering where I’m at now, kind of a shocking statement - I know.

As a Certified Athletic Therapist (& student), I ran into SO many people who were practicing physios who had zero respect for the knowledge and skillset of an AT and didn’t care to learn either (this was not every single person, but it was unfortunately a large majority). They consistently questioned my skill set, knowledge and ability to perform a job I had many, many years of training to do.

To give you a brief outline of the schooling I have. 4 year bachelor of science in Kinesiology followed by a 3 year degree in Athletic Therapy – then I worked for a few years & did some teaching at a Collegiate level before getting my 2 year Masters Degree in Physio.

In my 3 years of AT schooling – every semester and class was based around the musculoskeletal system (bone, muscle, joint, muscle/nerve etc) – all the way from acute on field injury and emergency scenarios to old, chronic pain that’s been around a while. We had thorough training in evaluation of injury to sort out the root cause of the pain. We had thorough training in assessment and rehab for every areas, with specific therapeutic exercise classes along with use of modalities. The level of in-depth training I got here in working in clinical outpatient setting and field work was, to be honest – beyond anything my Physio training ever touched on. We still learned the basics of assessment and rehab, but it was not in depth to the same extent.

By no means am I saying that Physio is less than, it is insanely important and they do amazing things but in the two years we not only covered what I stated above but also more neurological conditions and care (MS and stroke etc) along with the cardiovascular system (heart attack rehab, COPD, CF etc). Now you tell me, how is it possible to cover in detail each and every system and be thoroughly skilled at all of them and compare the timelines of 3 full years to 2 years combined.

I made the decision to get my Masters degree after working at a University and teaching a class to Kinesiology students & working with student trainers. I loved sharing my knowledge and knew that if I wanted to do it more – I would likely need a Masters degree. So, I decided to do Physio – it got me another designation that has a bit more insurance coverage for people and likely more consistent employment. I wasn’t overly pleased to be on the track with becoming a Physio – but I knew it would lead me to be able to practice how I needed and wanted it. It also opened the door to add Functional Dry Needling to my practice.

My AT background gave me a totally different perspective. I was trained to help people play and compete in the safest way possible. Which means I am more likely to be on board with keeping you going whether it’s at work or sport when a lot of other people would give a hard no. I will pull you if it’s unsafe I have to, but that’s the last thing I want to do. We have a lot of conversations about what both pathways look like.

Some examples of and situations & individuals I ran into that thought less of me as an AT and really pissed me off:

I don’t think I can count the number of times a physio or chiro or other health professional came up to me while in a clinical or field setting and without asking and offered to take a look and tell me what was going on. They would make a point of stating they knew better and would tell me what was what. When I would politely decline – they made a point of saying they were a professional so they should really look at it. To which I would tell them I am also trained professional.

Once I was working a Football game and I went to introduce myself to the opposing team’s therapist – who ended up being a Physio. At the time I had close to 10 year’s experience working in football as a certified AT and a student. When I introduced myself as an AT, he made a point to tell me well that’s great however he was a physio so if I had any issues to let him know cause he had been doing it for a few years. What I didn’t mention until this point was my background, years of experience and that I was also a physio on top of an AT. When I said that, he didn’t have a response and just turned around. The fact that it took all of that to gain even an ounce of respect from someone in similar field of work is appalling. Why not have a discussion with the individual introducing themselves – make a plan if something emergent happens or if you do need another opinion. We need to work together.

When I look at jobs with wage ranges, some jobs fit a criteria I would have killed for years ago. The thing that keeps me from applying is the significant wage gap. AT tends to get paid way less than physio – even in settings that require their full skill set and knowledge and working in conjunction with other professionals.

Working in the Physio world now – in multiple previous jobs – my AT background gave me 0 standing on experience. If anything they made it seem like it meant absolutely nothing and would get me nowhere. All they cared about was that I only had Physio name for x amount of time. When I questioned why my other background & experience wasn’t taken into account with wage, no one could provide an answer. I was spoken to as if I had no understanding of anything to do with my job and treated like I had no background. As much as I was a “new grad”, I was a new grad with multiple years of experience being fully and solely responsible for teams of athletes to keep them playing and doing all their rehab in a demanding environment.

I wanted to apply to get a Sport Physio designation – which required work time and experience and exams etc. I asked them if my AT background gave me any assistance in the process considering it’s basically the same thing. I was told that it pretty much meant nothing and wouldn’t be of any assistance. The harshness to this and the pure disregard for other people’s backgrounds is a reason I will never hold that designation. If you are telling me this – what are you telling the people who are in your training system… that they automatically are better than an AT… that the AT training and background means nothing? And we wonder why there is such a double standard…

The double standard that exists is a reason I will never give up my AT designation – I worked my ass off for all of it. I also do not bat an eye to tell anyone and everyone that asks that really there’s no difference to the care they are getting from me as an AT or Physio. Giving up my AT would just do more injustice to a field and hurt it as a whole more than help it.

Every profession, regardless of what their title – deserves respect for what they do, know and are capable of. If you don’t know – please ask and come into the conversation with an open mind.

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