How do I know when I'm ready to return to playing sport after my injury?

We treat a lot of people for sports injuries in the Newcastle and Lake Macquarie area, and this is one of the most common questions our clients ask at ATUNE Health Centres.

I recently had this conversation with a patient, who I had been treating since he ruptured the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) in his knee. He had followed his post-operative rehabilitation and was eager to play AFL again this season after missing out last year.

His knee was feeling great day-in-day-out, but was it ready for the high demands that AFL would place on it?

Very often, we see people present to our ATUNE clinics after a failed comeback to sport (those old hamstring tears are a common one!). They typically have suffered an injury a few weeks earlier, rested until the pain subsided and then tried to go back to playing.  In the process, they re-injure themselves causing more damage than the original injury.

When you have had an injury of any kind, unfortunately, the pain subsiding is not necessarily an indicator of the body being ready again to run, jump, twist, dive, throw, squat or do any of the countless other movements we subject ourselves to during physical activity.

When you look at the research into return-to-sport decision making, there are a number of different factors you have to consider, which you can see in Figure 1:

Figure 1. Adapted from “Return-to-Play Decisions: Are They the Team Physician’s Responsibility?” by Matheson, G.O et al. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 21 (1) 2011.
Figure 1. Adapted from “Return-to-Play Decisions: Are They the Team Physician’s Responsibility?” by Matheson, G.O et al. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine 21 (1) 2011.

With so many factors, you can see why so often people fail to return to sport successfully, and why our friend looking to return to AFL felt he was in a dilemma!

Fortunately, by undergoing functional and objective testing with your  ATUNE Physiotherapist, it need not be all left up to chance and guesswork.

In the case of our AFL player, after we assessed him we highlighted that there were some agility and jump and landing issues that were needing addressing before a game of AFL should be played and at ATUNE we could tailor his rehab program to target these effectively.

Once these issues were confirmed to have improved on retesting, we spoke with his coach to make sure that our client was able to interchange on and off as he needed throughout the game for his first run back.

The take away point here is: make sure that if you are currently injured, or have a past injury that is still plaguing you, give yourself the best chance to return to playing successfully by undergoing a return to sport assessment. It can save you much heartache through the season and more importantly, keep you on the field longer to enjoy the sport you love!

If you’d like to read further about the different factors on returning to sport, see the references below.

Learn more about Michael Corrigan

References and further reading:
  1. Matheson, G.O. et al (2011). Return-to-Play Decisions: Are They the Team Physician’s Responsibility?. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 21(1), 25-30.
  2. Myer, G.D. et al (2006). Rehabilitation After Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction: Criteria-Based Progression Through the Return-to-Sport Phase. Journal of Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 36(6), 385-402.
  3. Coles, p. (2012, 12 September 2012). Return to play decision making – Reducing clinician ‘personality bias’ with a call for objective clinical testing. [Weblog]. Retrieved 14 April 2016, from