Common Injuries suffered by Military Service Members

Serving in the military isn’t a sport, but when it comes to getting treated for an injury, physical therapists find the sports medicine approach effective.

From treating tendonitis caused by too much running during training to working with victims of a roadside bomb explosion, physical therapists are often the first to evaluate and diagnose military patients and eventually get them back to work.


Of the thousands of military injuries suffered around the world, musculoskeletal injuries – injuries that affect the body’s movement, such as tendonitis or stress fractures – account for 77 percent of war wounds, according to the American Association of Orthopedic Surgeons.

These include strains, sprains, dislocations and fractures that can happen anywhere – as you’re running during a combat mission, or when you’re spending too much time in an uncomfortable position working on a fighter jet.

For these types of injuries, physicians and physical therapists often use the Sports Medicine and Rehabilitation Therapy – or SMART – technique, treating the military personnel like athletes.


After an initial diagnosis, physical therapists create a plan of action to get the soldier-sailor-airman-Marine back to work by using contemporary sports medicine techniques.

At first, the goal is to reduce pain and inflammation and enhance mobility and healing. The physical therapist will assess the service member’s range of motion, flexibility and strength, and most often also assign them gentle stretching and strengthening exercises to accelerate the healing process, improve range of motion and increase muscle strength.

After a few weeks of the rehabilitative exercises, the goal becomes to fully return the military member to duty. That involves identifying what physical activities they can perform – running, lifting and jumping – and what they can’t.

With this in mind, the patient then turns their focus to aerobic activity, strength and endurance. If the individual has a leg injury that prevents running, swimming or cycling may be prescribed while the soldier continues to strengthen the muscles and work on flexibility.


Most of us can only imagine the chaos and terror that comes with becoming injured as a result of standing too close to a sudden explosion.

These often high-impact explosions can cause the most complex, significant injuries that aren’t solely concentrated in one area of the body. They are not only traumatic, but there’s usually also pieces of shrapnel flying, risks of chemical exposure and disorientation that follow.

These blast injuries are the other most common type of injury seen in military members and often take the form of traumatic brain injuries, soft tissue injuries, amputations, burns, loss of hearing, crush injuries, blunt injuries and more. Traumatic brain injuries became the “signature injury” during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, according to the American Physical Therapy Association, as a result of the homemade, roadside bombs becoming the enemy’s key weapon of choice.

In these multifaceted cases, physical therapists first extensively assess and screen the patient’s impairment (like loss of hearing or dizziness) functional limitations (like the ability to lift heavy objects) and disabilities (like being unable to fly a helicopter).

Then the real work begins. The patient works on balance and gait exercises, improves reflexes and practices cognitive drills. In some cases, patients must relearn basic life skills like walking, recovering motor skills, self-care skills and more.

The physical rehabilitation plan can involve equipment such as standing frames or tilt tables, body-weight-supported gait devices, orthotics, range-of-motion exercises and body re-positioning.


Physical therapists are can be the first called to evaluate injuries among military members. That’s why over the last 50 years, more physical therapists are deployed to the field and are down in the trenches – so to speak – with the troops.

Often, these deployed physical therapists are treating soldiers in austere places: in the middle of combat zones, or in situations where their supplies are limited.

Having physical therapists on-site in the combat area lessens the need to evacuate the soldier to another facility; it allows the physical therapist to get to the injury sooner, thus putting in place a rehabilitation plan quickly and getting the soldier back on his or feet sooner; and it lets the surgeons and other physicians have more time to treat complicated trauma or illness.


Tidewater Physical Therapy proudly accepts TRICARE.

The Role of US Military Physical Therapists During Recent Combat Campaigns – The Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association
Traumatic Brain Injury and Vestibular Pathology as a Comorbidity After last Exposure – The Journal of the American Physical Therapy Association
A Brief Background of Combat Injuries – The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons