Athletic Trainer: Your Sports & Physical Conditioning Expert

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
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What is an athletic trainer?

An athletic trainer specializes in preventing and treating acute and chronic muscle, bone and joint injuries under a doctor’s direction. Athletic trainers help people of all ages increase their physical performance in work or sports, prevent and minimize pain and loss of function, and avoid surgery. They often consult and collaborate with a patient’s entire medical and rehabilitation team.

An athletic trainer typically: 

  • Reviews and evaluates a patient’s medical and injury history, and current musculoskeletal functioning

  • Helps determine the severity of an injury

  • Provides emergency treatment for acute injuries, such as concussion, sprain, or bone fracture, resulting from physical activity

  • Tests and measures strength, range of motion, balance, coordination, posture, and muscle performance

  • Works with patients to develop an individualized treatment and physical conditioning plan based on their medical history, lifestyle, personal needs, and fitness goals

  • Provides therapeutic treatments to treat bone, muscle and joint injury and disease

  • Evaluates treatment progress and adjusts plans as necessary

  • Selects and fits protective equipment and rehabilitative equipment

  • Educates patients about home techniques to optimize mobility, strength, and overall fitness

An athletic trainer may also be known by the following names: AT; athletic trainer, certified athletic trainer (ATC); sports trainer; rehabilitation specialist; physician extender; and wellness manager.

Athletic trainers are sometimes incorrectly called personal trainers. However, personal training is a distinct field that requires different education, certification and expertise.

Who should see an athletic trainer?

Physically active people may see an athletic trainer when their doctor diagnoses a disease, injury, disorder or condition of the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, nerves and bones. Athletic and sports trainers treat people of all ages with a wide variety of conditions, including sprains, strains, overuse injuries, back pain, knee pain, arthritis, herniated discs, and osteoporosis.

You may see an athletic trainer to prepare for returning to physical activity or sports after surgery or during recovery from injury. In some cases, athletic training and rehabilitation may reduce or eliminate the need for surgery or pain medication, and help you return to work and athletics sooner and more safely.  

When should you see an athletic trainer?

Consider seeking care from an athletic trainer for these symptoms or conditions:

  • Decreased range of motion of a joint or other body part

  • Delayed motor development in a child

  • Joint pain or swelling

  • Muscle pain or swelling

  • Poor tolerance of exercise, sports, or other physical activities

Athletic trainers can also help you prevent athletic, sports and work injuries and maximize your physical performance.

What does an athletic trainer treat?

An athletic trainer provides exercise and other therapies for conditions and diseases that affect strength, flexibility, mobility, movement, and the ability to participate in physical work, exercise, or sports. Conditions include:

What does an athletic trainer test?

An athletic trainer can perform a wide variety of assessments and measurements of musculoskeletal function and disorders including:

  • Nutrition assessment to evaluate your current diet including what types of food you eat and in what amounts

  • Observation of physical movements including running, jumping, walking, grasping, lifting and bending

  • Physical examination including vital signs, reflexes, body measurements, body mass index, and body composition

  • Posture and ergonomic assessment while sitting, standing, and performing various physical activities

  • Stress and performance testing to examine range of motion, joint function, cardiovascular endurance, muscle performance, and strength

What procedures and treatments does an athletic trainer perform?

An athletic trainer can order or perform various procedures and treatments, including: 

  • Emergency illness and injury treatment including automated external defibrillator (AED) use, CPR, bleeding control, medication for anaphylaxis, splints, and spine boards

  • Hydrotherapy including individual and group exercise programs performed in a heated pool to decrease muscle stiffness, spasms and pain

  • Joint mobilization and range-of-motion exercises

    including manual manipulation to improve movement of stiff or painful joints 

  • Manual treatments including soft tissue massage

  • Nutrition planning

    and counseling including the best types and amounts of foods and vitamin supplements, weight loss or gain strategies, and general nutrition habits to optimize your physical performance

  • Physical conditioning including elements of cardiovascular, muscular and joint fitness to prevent illness and injury

  • Protective equipment use including selecting, providing and maintaining devices, such as shin guards, goggles, and knee pads that prevent injury during work or athletics

  • Rehabilitative device fitting including such devices as braces, splints, canes, crutches, walkers, wheelchairs and orthotics to promote healing, strength and post-injury function

  • Therapeutic and physical exercises to improve balance, endurance, cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and movement, while balancing the limitations of illness, disease or injury

  • Therapeutic techniques including hot and cold therapy, traction, transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS), therapeutic ultrasound, laser therapy, and electrical muscle stimulation (EMS)

Athletic trainer training and certification

If you are researching athletic trainers, consider both licensure and certification. In some states, a healthcare provider can practice athletic training without becoming licensed to practice in that state, but licensure is for your protection. While licensure is the legal requirement to practice athletic training, professional certification is a voluntary process that recognizes an athletic trainer’s expertise. In states that do not require licensure for athletic training, certification is an especially helpful consideration when choosing an athletic trainer.

A certified athletic trainer (ATC) is certified by the Board of Certification (BOC) for the Athletic Trainer. An ATC has completed a bachelor’s degree or master’s degree in athletic training from a school accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education (CAATE). They also must pass a written certification exam.

To maintain certification in athletic training, an athletic trainer must complete the BOC’s continuing education requirements.

There are no official subspecialties of athletic training. However, athletic trainers may specialize in certain age groups, in professional and semi-professional athletes, or in patients recovering from surgery. They may become experts in certain conditions or may only provide treatment in specific environments, such as hospitals, athletic facilities, schools, or industrial workplaces. Since athletic trainers provide care for patients under the supervision of a doctor, they may be known as a physician extender in some practices or healthcare settings.

To choose the right trainer for you, search for an athletic trainer with good patient reviews and who specializes in your condition, stage of life, or who provides treatment in your preferred setting.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Jan 21
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.

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  2. Athletic Trainers – Not “Trainers.” National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

  3. Athletic Training Education Overview. National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

  4. Athletic Training Services: An Overview of Skills and Services Performed by Certified Athletic Trainers. National Athletic Trainers’ Association.

  5. What's the Difference Between a Personal Trainer, Athletic Trainer and Physical Therapist? American Council on Exercise.