The medical field has recognized the importance of physical therapy in regards to injury recovery for many years. Specific exercise plans are carefully designed to strengthen the muscles weakened by injury so that the patient may return to normal functioning. Medical massage has even been added to the treatment process due to its effectiveness in progressing physical healing. Although these methods are highly beneficial, they only address one aspect of the human body. Patient’s overall mental well-being plays a vital role in injury recovery but is often ignored or overlooked. It is important to identify the psychological effects of injury to ensure that the patient receives the most comprehensive care.
To illustrate an example, think of a patient with an ACL tear. Often, recovery can last six to nine months even with the most advanced care. This lengthy recovery time can not only contribute to a significant loss in muscle, but a decline in a person’s mental well-being as well. ACL tears make everyday activities such as walking strenuous and even painful. Not to mention can take away from a patient’s everyday activities and sense of independence. Throughout the healing process, this type of patient could largely benefit from a sport psychology program that could help with depression, loss of motivation, fear or anxiety associated with injury, as well as teach proper goal setting which would encourage patients to maintain their physical exercise program.
Research has shown that specific tools in psychology are essential during the rehabilitation of injured athletes (Hamson-Utley, Martin, & Walters, 2008). If this is the case, these same skills can be transferred to help anyone who is being rehabilitated from an injury regardless of involvement in sports. A few key points from this research study indicated that athletes have benefitted from the use of psychological skills in the areas of maintaining a positive mindset, decreasing stress and anxiety, as well as visualizing healing occurring in the injured body part. A specific example of a psychological skill used with athletes was mental imagery which allowed athletes to reduce fear and anxiety through relaxation before and after surgery. Imagery was also found to be beneficial when used before returning to sport to reduce the fear of re-injury (Hamson-Utley et. Al. 2008).
The most commonly reported psychological issues associated with athletic injury were anxiety and negative stressors. This information led to the use of a model to interpret how an athlete responds to injury. The integrated model of response describes the response to injury as being influenced by personal and situational factors which are then associated with the behavioral and emotional response of the athlete. The physical and mental recovery from injury are directly influenced by these behavioral and emotional responses often characterized by negative/positive self-talk, frustration, and adherence to rehabilitation. This model emphasizes that the skills that are influential in promoting positive behavioral and emotional outcomes are coping skills, mental imagery, positive self-talk, and goal setting (Hamson-Utley et. Al. 2008).
The knowledge of this information opens the door to the implementation of a sport psychology program in a physical therapy setting. Many physical therapists do not receive formal education in the use of psychological skills for rehabilitation but are often open to opportunities to further their education. Studies have even identified a positive attitude toward gaining the psychological skills necessary for providing patient mental care among sport trainers and physical therapists.
If physical therapists integrate psychological concepts and skills in their day-to-day interactions with patients, they will find rehabilitation as a whole to be a more positive experience. When patients have access to the skills above, they have the ability to achieve the fastest recovery possible. This is because such a program would ideally be paired with the physical rehabilitation program as the mental rehabilitation component to recovery.