Playing on a community or school sports team is a great way for kids to stay in shape, learn teamwork, commit to a healthy pursuit and have fun. This is probably why more than 38 million American children and teens play at least one organized sport.
No matter which sport your child plays, there is always a risk of getting hurt. Teen sports injuries range from minor sprained ankles and repetitive strains to heat stroke or exercise-induced asthma. Some kids have serious allergic reactions to bees and other stinging insects found around athletic fields.
To avoid getting hurt or sick while competing, teens need to be ready. Preparation begins with seeing a health care provider for a sports physical to ensure their bodies are ready for the season and that there is not a family or individual medical history that requires further attention.
Even if your child’s school district or recreational league does not require a sports physical, it is a good idea for every teen who plays a sport to make sure they are healthy enough to safely participate.
What is a sports physical?
A sports physical is a checkup to assess a teen’s health and fitness as it relates to a sport. It is not the same as a regular physical. During a sports physical, the health care provider looks for any diseases or injuries that could make it unsafe to participate in sports and reviews the family’s medical history to ensure additional tests are performed, if necessary.
Where and when is a sports physical done?
Pediatricians, primary care doctors, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners can perform sports physicals and sign the required forms. While sports physicals are offered at other clinics, such as those inside some drug-store chains, they should not take the place of an annual physical exam by your teen’s pediatrician.
Ideally, you should try to have the exam done about six to eight weeks before the start of a sports season. That way, if the health care provider wants to treat a condition, refer you to a specialist, or do a followup exam, there will be enough time before the sport begins to be cleared to play.
What to expect during a sports physical
Your teen’s sports physical should start with a thorough medical history. The health care provider will ask about any history of illness, hospitalizations, or injuries that might prevent them from playing or limit the amount of activity they can handle. Your teen should be asked to complete a health history form, as well as a questionnaire that asks about daily habits and lifestyle choices.
The medical history will be followed by a physical exam, where the health care provider will:
- Measure height and weight
- Take pulse rate and blood pressure
- Check heart and lungs
- Check neurological function
- Test vision and hearing
- Check ears, nose, and throat
- Look at joint flexibility, mobility, spinal alignment, and posture
- Screen cholesterol, obtain a hemoglobin count and perform a urinalysis
- Screen for hernias in males
- Give immunizations, if needed
Girls may also be asked about their period, and whether it is regular. Additional tests such as bloodwork, an X-ray or electrocardiogram may be ordered based on the analysis.
Will my teen be able to play?
At the end of a sports physical, the health care provider will decide whether it is safe for your teen to play. The decision is based on several factors, including:
- Type of sport and how strenuous it is
- Position played
- Level of competition
- Size of the athlete
- Use and type of protective equipment
- Ability to modify the sport to make it safer
If everything checks out, the health care provider will provide an OK to play without restrictions. Or, the health care provider may recommend modifications, like using special protective equipment, carrying an epinephrine injector (“EpiPen”) for severe insect allergies, or using an inhaler if your teen has asthma.
It is rare for teens not to be allowed to play. Most health conditions will not prevent kids from participating in sports, but sometimes they will need treatment and a follow-up exam first.
Even if your teen has a sports physical every season, it is not a complete physical exam. They should still receive a comprehensive health exam each year. If your teen takes a break from sports one year, make sure they still receive an annual checkup.
Schedule sports physicals early
Since individual school districts have different timing requirements about when student athletes need to show proof of a recent sports physical to try out and play, I encourage parents to schedule them as early as possible since demand often exceeds availability, especially if people procrastinate. Some school districts require that student athletes trying out for fall sports show proof of a sports physical as early as Aug. 1 since that is when tryouts and practices sometimes begin.
Walk-In Sports Physical Mini Camp at Virginia Mason Issaquah Aug. 11
Virginia Mason Issaquah (100 N.E. Gilman Blvd., Issaquah, WA 98027) is offering a Walk-In Sports Physical Mini Camp Saturday, Aug. 11, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. This convenient, drop-in opportunity will allow athletes between ages 5-21 to receive the required preparticipation exam and important information about concussions and sports nutrition. Healthy snacks will also be available, and student athletes can participate in Nutrition and Fitness for Life (N.F.L.) challenges. For more information, or to schedule an appointment on another date, call 425-557-8000 or visit VirginiaMason.org/Issaquah.
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Michael Dudas, MD, FAAP is a board certified pediatrician who practices at Virginia Mason University Village Medical Center. His specialties include Pediatrics and Primary Care. He has been chief of Pediatrics at Virginia Mason since 2007.