shutterstock 570884644If you’ve paid attention during injury time-outs in the NFL or a college basketball game, you may have noticed that when a player gets hurt, there is a large number of people who run out onto the field or court to tend to them. While that group of people likely includes a variety of personnel and medical staff, there is a good chance that the team’s sports medicine physician is part of that group.

Sports medicine physicians are trained to do a variety of things. One of their titles that is more popularly known is that of “team doctor.” However, though treating athletes and athletic injuries is a large part of their careers, they are also trained to treat other patient populations, as well as injuries that are not caused by sports.

What is a Sports Medicine Physician?

Once all training, residencies, and fellowships have been completed, the sports medicine physician definition and skills can sound specific to athletic injury. Typically, a sports medicine physician has specialized training in the treatment of sports related illness and injury. They are also involved in injury prevention and rehabilitation. Upon completion of all training, these doctors should be able to provide comprehensive care related to the return to a physically healthy and active lifestyle.

Currently, physicians cannot choose sports medicine as a primary residency specialty. Because of this, sports medicine physicians always have an area of specialty in another area in which they are board certified; typically this is in orthopedics, internal medicine, pediatrics, rehabilitation, family medicine, or emergency medicine. After completion of one of these educational tracks, those who desire to be a sports medicine physician then can obtain 1-2 years of training specific to sports medicine via a fellowship program.

Though one cannot be board certified in sports medicine, there is a certification exam that these professionals can sit for. If a physician passes, they then hold a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in Sports Medicine. Sports medicine physicians with a CAQ participate in continuing education and take a recertification examination every 10 years.

What Do Sports Medicine Physicians Do?

Sports medicine doctors have a very specialized set of skills, including the ability to prevent, treat, and manage a variety of injuries that are often caused by athletic participation. They work with both musculoskeletal and non-musculoskeletal issues.

Common Areas of Treatment

While the following list of treatment areas can all be directly related to athletic participation, all can also be caused by a variety of other conditions, including old age, chronic disease, inappropriate lifestyle choices, etc.

  • Concussion (and other head injuries)
  • Chronic/acute illness treatment related to athletic abilities (asthma, weight control, diabetes)
  • Acute injuries (ankle sprains, muscle strains, dislocations, non-surgical fractures, knee and shoulder issues)
  • Injuries of overuse or misuse (rotator cuff, tendonitis, osteoarthritis, stress fractures)
  • Nutrition, supplement, performance issues (and care plans)
  • Exercise “prescriptions” and care plans
  • Injury prevention
  • Health management and promotion

Surgical vs. Non-Surgical Care

Typically, sports medicine physicians perform non-operative care for both musculoskeletal and non-musculoskeletal issues. If a sports medicine physician is a board certified orthopedic surgeon, they will also be trained for operative care for any of these conditions. If you require surgical care, you will want a referral for a physician who is trained in operative treatment. Your sports medicine primary care doctor can often provide this.

Where Do Sports Medicine Doctors Work?

Though many sports medicine doctors do have affiliations with professional or collegiate athletics, you can also find them working in fitness clubs, in private practice, rehabilitation facilities, and in group practice. Those who do not have a direct affiliation with an athletic team still work intimately with athletic trainers, coaches, and athletic program directors to reach the right goals for their patients. For patients that do need surgical care, inpatient treatment will come at the hospital or surgery center that their MD is affiliated with.

Will a Sports Medicine Physician Treat Me?

Yes! There are thousands of people who are treated by sports medicine physicians every year who are not suffering from a sports-related injury. Many sources and professional institutions report that sports medicine doctors are ideally suited to treat non-athletes as well as athletes. The use of these doctors is often encouraged, particularly for the individual who desires to be active again, resume healthy exercise, and/or return to health. Though treatment for an athlete often does have very specific goals and timelines, that expertise and those plans of care can be applied to any individual who needs help returning to full function.

Laura Mansfield

Master of Healthcare Administration (MHA) | Sacred Heart University

Associate’s Degree of Nursing (ADN) | North Seattle Community College

Bachelor of Business Administration (B.B.A.), Marketing, Sales | University of Washington (Seattle)

January 2020

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