Sports physicals health facts
- According to the National Federation of State High School Associations, almost 8 million teenagers participate in sports each year and that number is on the rise. No matter which sport an athlete participates in, there is always a risk of injury.
- Coaches, schools and medical professionals keep these children safe through a special annual exam called a sports physical exam, which specifically checks athletes for risk factors that could make playing a sport unsafe.
- During a sports physical, the doctor or provider will go over the family health history and check the athlete’s heart, lungs and joints, with the goal of giving the “all clear” for participation in sports.
What are sports physical exams?
A sports physical (sometimes called a pre-participation physical exam), is an exam that all children and young adults participating in organized sports in Colorado must undergo in order to be eligible to play. The purpose of this exam is to make sure it is safe for an adolescent to participate in a certain sport. Although the state of Colorado only requires a sports physical for high school aged athletes, if your child is 5-18 and plays organized sports, we recommend that he or she receive an annual sports physical. Some school-aged summer camps also require a pre-participation physical exam in order for a child to participate in the program.
A sports physical does not take the place of the athlete’s annual physical exam. The sports physical specifically checks the athlete’s health as it relates to physical fitness and the sport being played. Some annual exam items, such as blood work and vaccinations, will likely not be performed during a sports physical.
However, when a parent or athlete is making an appointment, he or she can request that the annual exam and the sports physical be completed during the same visit. It is important to request this when making the appointment so that we can allot more time to complete all components of each exam.
When to schedule a sports physical
The sports physical should ideally be scheduled six to eight weeks before the sport season begins. This way, if any follow-up tests or appointments are needed, there will be plenty of time for the athlete to be cleared to play before the season begins.
Getting the “all clear” for sports participation
Factors that go into the primary care provider’s decision to pass an athlete to participate in sports include:
- The size of the athlete.
- The child’s age.
- The sport being played and how physically strenuous it is.
- The level of competition and contact.
- Use of and type of protective equipment available or needed.
- The ability to modify the sport or practices to make it safer for the athlete.
It is very rare that a child is barred completely from playing sports. While we do want to allow each athlete to participate in their selected sports, our goal is to act in the best interests of the child’s health.
If a health condition is found during a sports physical exam, we will do all we can to modify the child’s participation in practice and games so he or she can play.
If your child is coming to their exam without a parent, they need to bring a signed parent permission form to the exam.
What to expect during a HealthFit sports physical
The main components of a sports physical are the health history and the physical exam. If the athlete is coming to this appointment alone, he/she should make sure to speak to his/her parents about these health history questions prior to the appointment.
Prior to the appointment, it is important that the athlete or parent fill out the health history questions fully and honestly. The medical history is one of the most important parts of any family medicine provider’s visit and a critical part of the sports clearance decision-making because a full medical history can help a provider diagnose and prevent many health issues.
Some of the questions we ask during the health history include:
- Is there a family history of any serious illness?
- Does the family have a history of sudden death before age 50?
- Does the family have a history of concussions?
- Has the athlete had a childhood illness or a current illness such as epilepsy, asthma or diabetes?
- Has the athlete ever been hospitalized, had any surgeries or experienced any sports related injuries (sprains, fractures, concussions)?
- Does the athlete have any allergies?
- Has the athlete ever experienced chest pain, shortness of breath, dizziness or fainting during exercise?
During the physical portion of the exam, our providers will check the following.
- Vital signs. These include blood pressure (bp), heart rate, respiration rate and temperature.
- Heart exam. By listening to the athlete’s heart we can detect an irregular heartbeat, a heart murmur or other symptoms that can affect heart health during sports play.
- Vision exam. By performing a traditional vision exam, we can assess if an athlete should wear specific eyewear or contact lenses while participating in sports. Protective eyewear is required if an athlete has one functioning eye and vision is less than 20/40 in the good eye. But we recommend that all athletes playing a contact sport wear protective eyewear.
- Physical exam. The provider will also perform an exam of the athlete’s abdomen, ears, nose, throat, posture, joints, muscle and bone strength, and flexibility. Males may also have their genitals checked for hernias, and females may be asked questions in regard to regular menstruation. Additional tests such as blood tests, x-rays or electrocardiograms may also be ordered when needed.
What should you or your child bring to a sports physical?
- Updated medical records, including vaccination records, especially if HealthFit is not your child’s primary family medicine provider.
- Any medical clearance notes from specialists about known conditions.
- A completed Physical Examination and Parent Permit for Athletic Participation
- A list of all current medications, vitamins and supplements.
- Before the appointment, parents should review their insurance health plan to understand their coverage.
Benefits of a sports physical exam
The sports physical can help primary care providers find out about any health conditions and create a plan to manage them. For example, if an athlete has asthma and is planning on running cross country, our providers can prescribe a different long-term control medication and inhaler that can help the athlete breathe easier during the long runs. These exams are also crucial to diagnosing any heart and brain issues that could put an athlete at risk if left untreated.
Our physicians are aware of the different states a child’s body goes through in development and bring this perspective to the individual’s sports physical. For example, children’s bones have soft cartilage growth plates at the ends of the arm and leg bones. These are more susceptible to fracture. Sports injuries can be more serious for a child than for an adult, so we take special care to focus on preventing such injuries.
Prevention of injury is a main goal of the sports physical exam. Our providers can detect early musculoskeletal injuries to be treated before the season starts and discuss good training tips like stretching and strengthening activities to proactively prevent injuries. We also partner with kinesiologists in a nearby gym who can provide a personal training session to help each athlete perform safely at his or her fullest potential.