You know that playing sports helps keep kids fit and are a fun way for them to
socialize and make friends. But you might not know why it's so important for kids
to get a sports physical at the beginning of their sports season.
About Sports Physicals
In the sports medicine field, the sports physical exam — or preparticipation
physical examination(PPE) — helps determine whether
it's safe for kids to participate in a certain sport. Most states actually require
that kids and teens have a sports physical before they can start a new sport or begin
a new competitive season. But even if a sports physical isn't required, doctors still
highly recommend getting one.
The two main parts to a sports physical are the medical history and the physical
This part of the exam includes questions about:
serious illnesses among family members
illnesses that kids had when they were younger or may have now, such as asthma,
diabetes, or epilepsy
previous hospitalizations or surgeries
allergies (to insect bites, for example)
past injuries (including concussions, sprains, or bone fractures)
whether the child has ever passed out, felt dizzy, had chest pain, or had
trouble breathing during exercise
any medications taken (including over-the-counter medications, herbal supplements,
and prescription medications)
The medical history questions are usually on a form that you'll fill out with your
child. Looking at patterns of illness in a family is a good way to consider possible
conditions kids might have. Most sports medicine doctors believe the medical history
is the most important part of the sports physical exam, so take time to answer the
questions carefully. It's unlikely that any health conditions your child has will
prevent him or her from playing sports.
During the physical part of the exam, the doctor will usually:
record height and weight
take a blood pressure and pulse (heart rate and rhythm)
test your child's vision
check the heart, lungs, abdomen, ears, nose, and throat
evaluate your child's posture, joints, strength, and flexibility
Although most of the exam will be the same for males and females, the doctor may
ask girls and guys different questions if they've started or already gone through
puberty. For example, if a girl is heavily involved in a lot of active sports, the
doctor may ask her about her period and diet to make sure she doesn't have something
like female athlete triad (poor nutrition, irregular or absent periods, and weak bones).
A doctor will also ask questions about use of drugs, alcohol, or dietary supplements,
including steroids or other "performance enhancers" and weight-loss supplements, because
these can affect a person's health.
At the end of the exam, the doctor will either fill out and sign a form if everything
checks out OK or, in some cases, recommend a follow-up exam, additional tests, or
specific treatment for medical problems.
Why a Sports Physical Is Important
A sports physical can help athletes find out about and deal with health problems
that might interfere with their participation in a sport. For example, for a kid who
has frequent asthma attacks but is a starting forward in soccer, a doctor might be
able to prescribe a different type of inhaler or adjust the dosage for easier breathing
The doctor may even have some good training tips and be able to give athletes some
ideas for avoiding injuries. For example, the doctor may recommend certain stretching
or strengthening activities, that help prevent injuries. A doctor also can identify
risk factors that are linked to specific sports. Advice like this will make kids better,
When and Where to Go for a Sports Physical
Some athletes go to their own doctor for a sports physical; others have one at
school. During school physicals, kids might go to half a dozen or so "stations"
set up in the gym; each one is staffed by a medical professional who gives a specific
part of the physical exam.
If your child's school offers the exam, it's convenient to get it done there. But
even if the sports physical is done at school, it's a good idea for your regular doctor
to do an exam as well. Your doctor knows your kids — and their health history
— better than anyone they talk to briefly in a gym.
If your state requires sports physicals, kids probably will have to start
getting them when in seventh grade. Even if sports physicals aren't required by your
school or state, it's still smart for kids to get them if they participate in
school sports. And those who compete regularly in a sport before ninth grade
should begin getting these exams even earlier.
Getting a sports physical once a year is usually adequate. Any athlete healing
from a major injury, like a broken wrist or ankle, however, should get checked out
after it's healed before starting to practice or play again.
Getting a physical about 6 weeks before the sports season begins allows enough
time to follow up on something, if necessary. Neither your child nor your doctor
will be very happy if the sports physical is the day before baseball practice starts
and it turns out there's something that needs to be taken of care.
If There's a Problem
What happens if your child doesn't get the OK from your doctor and has to see a
specialist? Does that mean your young athlete won't ever be able to letter in
softball or hockey? Don't worry if the doctor orders other tests or a follow-up exam
— it could be something as simple as rechecking your child's blood pressure
a week or two after the physical.
A referral to a specialist may help your child's athletic performance. For example,
a kid who wants to try out for the track team but gets a slight pain in the knee
every time he or she runs might see an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist
to help figure out what's going on. Perhaps the pain comes from previous overtraining
or poor running technique. Maybe the knee was injured a long time ago and it
never totally healed. Or perhaps the problem is as simple as running shoes that don't
offer enough support. Chances are, a doctor will be able to help your child run
without the risk of further injury to the knee by offering suggestions or treatment
before the sports season begins.
It's very unlikely that your child will be disqualified from playing sports. The
ultimate goal of the sports physical is to make sure your child is safe while playing
sports, not to stop him or her from playing. Most of the time, a specialist won't
find any reason to prevent someone from playing a sport.
What About Regular Physicals?
It may seem like overkill, but also getting a regular physical is important for
athletes because these are different from a sports physical.
The sports physical focuses on well-being as it relates to playing a sport. It's
more limited than a regular physical, but it's a lot more specific about athletic
issues. During a regular physical, however, doctors address kids' overall well-being,
which may include things not related to sports. You can ask your doctor to do both
types of exams during one visit; just be aware that it'll take more time.
Even if a sports physical exam doesn't reveal any problems, it's always wise to
monitor your kids when they play sports. If you notice changes in their physical condition
— even if you think they're minor, such as muscle pain or shortness of breath
— talk to the coach or see your doctor. You should also inform the phys-ed teacher
or coach if your child's health needs have changed in any way or if he or she is taking
a new medication.
Just as professional sports stars need medical care to keep them playing their
best, so do young athletes. Help give your kids the same edge as the pros by making
sure they get get their sports physicals.