What is an athletic trainer?

February 3, 2016 Melissa Ballance AT/L, ATC

When a professional or college athlete -- and in many cases a high school athlete -- gets hurt, a medical professional is on the sideline, ready to evaluate the athlete and determine whether he or she can return to the game. Who are these medical professionals?

Athletic Trainers (ATs) are health care professionals who work in sports medicine. They help keep athletes healthy, or help them recover if they do get injured. All ATs have a bachelor’s degree from an accredited athletic training program, and about 70 percent have a master’s degree.

Athletic trainers also must be certified by the National Athletic Trainers Association (NATA), which requires an exam that covers five major areas of practice:

  • Prevention
  • Clinical evaluation and diagnosis
  • Immediate and emergency care
  • Treatment and rehabilitation
  • Organization and professional health and well-being

ATs must maintain this certification by completing 75 continuing education units every three years. Forty-nine states either require ATs to obtain a state license or have regulations governing the profession. There currently are efforts to require an athletic training license in California.

In Washington, athletic trainers are licensed annually by the Department of Health. With their training, ATs can provide services such as injury prevention, emergency care, clinical diagnosis, therapeutic intervention and rehabilitation.

The roles of athletic trainers and personal trainers are commonly misunderstood. Both focus on a person’s physical well-being, but their training and credentials can differ greatly. Most notably, athletic trainers must have a bachelor’s degree and be certified by the NATA. In contrast, personal trainers have numerous education and training options, with varying requirements.

Athletic trainers work in many settings, including:

  • High schools
  • Universities
  • Hospitals and clinics
  • Professional sports
  • Occupational health
  • The military
  • Performing arts
  • Public safety

Athletic trainers are particularly valuable for young athletes involved in intense sports. ATs who work at high schools are with athletes five days a week, which allows them to evaluate an athlete at the time of injury, and then work with the athlete through rehabilitation and a return to play. Athletic trainers also are trained to recognize when consultation with other healthcare providers is necessary and are able to refer athletes accordingly.

If you have questions about your child’s participation in sports or athletic health, call Swedish Pediatric Sports Medicine at 206-215-2700.

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