Gymnasts turn to Physical Therapy to avoid Recurring Injury

Gymnasts turn to Physical Therapy to avoid Recurring Injury

Many people believe that gymnastics is easy because “little girls do it”. The truth is that there is nothing easy about gymnastics. Gymnasts spend long hours, year round, training to be flexible, strong, and to do each and every skill perfectly. These athletes work very hard to make it look easy, to keep up that illusion.

As with any sport that involves long hours of training, gymnastics can, and often does, result in injuries. Stop gap measures such as taping will allow gymnasts to continue training. However, to truly recover from an injury and regain the strength needed to progress in the sport, athletes should consider investing time in physical rehabilitation following injury.

Rolled Ankles: the gymnast’s companion

Gymnastics is primarily done in bare feet on unstable surfaces without the benefit or support of shoes. The trampolines, mats and multilevel training areas make walking a challenge for the average person. This difficulty is magnified during a typical training session for gymnasts.

Ankle sprains from rolling the ankle are one of the most commonly experienced gymnastic injuries. When a gymnast rolls their ankle, it is usually because they landed a skill with their weight supported more to the outside of their foot, causing the foot to bend inward. This results in the ankle collapsing on the outside. In turn, the ligaments strain to keep the ankle stable.

rolled ankle

Taping: a temporary solution

The most common mid-season response is for the athlete’s coach or trainer to tape the injured ankle for stability until the pain subsides, allowing the athlete to continue to train and compete. While this is a good temporary measure to prevent further short term injury, it is only part of the rehabilitation necessary to return to full strength.

Although taping can reduce pain and provide some stability, it does not ensure that the ligament is able to fully heal. During normal ankle use the ligaments are minimally engaged thus not causing additional pain. This may give the athlete a false sense of being healed and ready to return to training. Professional intervention is necessary to identify which ligaments have been damaged and to go beyond pain relief to recovery and rehabilitation.

Unfortunately, without proper rehabilitation the likelihood of subsequent sprains increases with each episode. With each consecutive sprain, the ligaments continue to be stretched without fully retracting, creating pain-free instability in the ankle. Thus the ankle becomes less and less likely to withstand even minimal stress to proper alignment and becomes prone to additional injury. This is why proper rehabilitation is so important.

Physical Therapy: a foundation for future success

Rehabilitation should start immediately following an ankle sprain to ensure the fastest recovery possible. A physical therapist with sports rehab experience will conduct a thorough evaluation of the athlete to determine damage to the ankle and to identify any other weaknesses or limitations that may affect the athlete’s recovery, stability or strength. They will then create a targeted, individualized plan of care for the athlete that will promote accelerated recovery and future injury prevention.

For example, with an ankle injury, the physical therapist will guide the athlete through a series of exercises designed to help the damaged ligaments shorten and return to their pre-injury status. Therapists will begin with pain management and dynamic stability exercises designed to strengthen the muscles around the joint for short term injury prevention. They will also incorporate balance and proprioceptive exercises to stimulate healing to damaged nerves. This is important as the nerves are the body’s way of ensuring that the athlete lands with the feet and ankles in the correct position to prevent injury.

Through skills testing, the therapist will develop a process for reintegrating physical activity and determine when it is safe for the athlete to resume full activity. Physical therapy will provide the foundation to keep the athlete on the pathway to successful training, while reducing future strain/sprain injuries.

Learn more about the team of physical therapists and experienced sports rehab professionals at Allied Services Spine & Sports Medicine Center in Wilkes-Barre.

About the Author: Robin Jacobs, PT, DPT, is an experienced physical therapist. She is currently treating patients and athletes at Allied Services Tunkhannock Rehab Center. In addition to advanced certification in the treatment of Parkinson’s disease, she has a strong background in sports rehab and injury prevention. Robin has more than 20 years of experience in training gymnasts of all ages.