You already know that playing sports helps keep you fit. You also know that sports
are a fun way to socialize and meet people. But you might not know why it's so important
to get a sports physical at the beginning of your sports season.
What Is a Sports Physical?
In the sports medicine field, the sports physical exam is known as a preparticipation
physical examination(PPE). The exam helps determine whether
it's safe for you 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 you had when you 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 you've ever passed out, felt dizzy, had chest pain, or had trouble breathing
any medications that you are on (including over-the-counter medications, herbal
supplements, and prescription medications)
The medical history questions are usually on a form that you can bring home, so
ask your parents to help you fill in the answers. If possible, ask both parents about
family medical history.
Answer the questions as well as you can. Try not to guess the answers or give answers
you think your doctor wants.
Looking at patterns of illness in your family is a good way to consider possible
conditions you may 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 your answers will prevent you from playing
During the physical part of the exam, the doctor will usually:
record your height and weight
take a blood pressure and pulse (heart rate and rhythm)
test your vision
check your heart, lungs, abdomen, ears, nose, and throat
evaluate your posture, joints, strength, and flexibility
Although most of the exam will be the same for males and females, if a person has
started or already gone through puberty, the doctor may ask girls and guys different
questions. 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 your 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 Is a Sports Physical Important?
A sports physical can help you find out about and deal with health problems that
might interfere with your participation in a sport. For example, if you have frequent
asthma attacks but are a starting forward in soccer, a doctor might be able to prescribe
a different type of inhaler or adjust the dosage so that you can breathe more easily
when you run.
Your doctor may even have some good training tips and be able to give you some
ideas for avoiding injuries. For example, he or she 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 you a
better, stronger athlete.
When & Where Should I Go for a Sports Physical?
Some people go to their own doctor for a sports physical; others have one at school.
During school physicals, you may go to half a dozen or so "stations" set up in the
gym; each one is staffed by a medical professional who gives you a specific part of
the physical exam.
If your school offers the exam, it's convenient to get it done there. But even
if you have a sports physical at school, it's a good idea to see your regular doctor
for an exam as well. Your doctor knows you — and your health history —
better than anyone you talk to briefly in a gym.
If your state requires sports physicals, you'll probably have to start getting
them when you're in seventh grade. Even if sports
physicals aren't required by your school or state, it's still smart to get
them if you participate in school sports. And if you compete regularly in a sport
before ninth grade, you should begin getting these exams even earlier.
Getting a sports physical once a year is usually adequate. If you're healing from
a major injury, like a broken wrist or ankle, however, get checked out after it's
healed before you start practicing or playing again.
You should have your physical about 6 weeks before your sports season begins so
there's enough time to follow up on something, if necessary. Neither you nor your
doctor will be very happy if your sports physical is
the day before baseball practice starts and it turns out there's something
that needs to be taken care of before you can suit up.
What If There's a Problem?
What happens if you don't get the OK from your own doctor and have to see a specialist?
Does that mean you won't ever be able to letter in softball or hockey? Don't worry
if your doctor asks you to have other tests or go for a follow-up exam — it
could be something as simple as rechecking your blood pressure a week or two after
Your doctor's referral to a specialist may help your athletic performance. For
example, if you want to try out for your school's track team but get a slight pain
in your knee every time you run, an orthopedist or sports medicine specialist can
help you figure out what's going on. Perhaps the pain comes from previous overtraining
or poor running technique. Maybe you injured the knee 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 you run without the risk
of further injury to the knee by giving you suggestions or treatment before the
sports season begins.
It's very unlikely that you'll be disqualified from playing sports. The ultimate
goal of the sports physical is to make sure you're safe while playing sports, not
to stop you from playing. Most of the time, a specialist won't find any reason to
prevent you from playing your sport.
Do I Still Have to Get a Regular Physical?
In a word, yes. It may seem like overkill, but a sports physical is different from
a standard physical.
The sports physical focuses on your 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, your doctor will address your overall
well-being, which may include things that are unrelated to sports. You can ask your
doctor to give you both types of exams during one visit; just be aware that you'll
need to set aside more time.
Even if your sports physical exam doesn't reveal any problems, it's always wise
to monitor yourself when you play sports. If you notice changes in your physical condition
— even if you think they're small, such as muscle pain or shortness of breath
— be sure to mention them to a parent or coach. You should also inform your
phys-ed teacher or coach if your health needs have changed in any way or if you're
taking a new medication.
Just as professional sports stars need medical care to keep them playing their
best, so do teenage athletes. You can give yourself the same edge as the pros by making
sure you have your sports physical.