shutterstock 309726890In today’s medical world, there is currently not a board-certified residency option specific to sports medicine. The title of sports medicine is a recognized sub specialty by the American Board of Medical Subspecialties. Those who want to be a sports medicine physician must first complete their residency in another area of medicine. Some common areas of choice are orthopedics, primary care, emergency care, and physical medicine and rehabilitation. After completing their residency, these physicians can then continue into a sports medicine fellowship program. Lastly, these doctors must also pass a certification exam, allowing them to hold a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Sports Medicine.

Though all sports medicine physicians must pass similar examinations and display comparable qualifications, their area of focus during residency does affect what they do in their day-to-day work. The work of a primary care sports medicine doctor and the work of an orthopedic surgeon with a sports medicine specialization will have significant overlap, but there will also be some notable differences as well.

General Skills of a Sports Medicine Physician

Sports medicine doctors are trained to treat and prevent musculoskeletal and non-musculoskeletal injuries. This may include care for both acute injuries (sprains, muscle strains, knees) and overuse injuries (stress fractures, tendonitis), as well as conditions like a concussion, injury prevention, and rehabilitation. Of particular importance in sports medicine practice is the issue of timing. Most athletes need to “return to play” as soon as possible, with their full function intact. This means that sports medicine physicians are constantly balancing optimal biological healing times, pre-injury capabilities, and time away from the sport. Sports medicine physicians must stay on top of the newest evidence-based practice to ensure their “return to play” times are expedient.

The American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) reports that a “sports medicine specialist [is] uniquely positioned to meet the demands of today’s health care environment.” While it is true that their expertise is ideal for an athlete, their knowledge can be applied to all individuals who desire (or need) to return to full functioning capacity.

Of note is that some sports medicine physicians are specially trained to treat the elderly population or the pediatric population. These types of injuries can affect a body at any age and it an individual needs to be treated by a provider who understands the nuances and biological differences of their specific demographic.

What Does a Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician Do?

A primary care sports medicine doctor is usually involved in non-surgical treatment of the injured athlete or individual. AMSSM reports that approximately 90% of sports injuries are non-surgical. These doctors are frequently involved in physical examinations, injury assessment and management, splinting, casting, rehabilitation plans, education and counseling related to current injury or injury prevention, care of general medical needs, substance abuse issues, and sports psychology issues. A sports medicine primary doctor should also be willing and able to provide the necessary referrals for any of these care areas that grow outside of his or her scope of practice.

What Does an Orthopedic Surgeon Specializing in Sports Medicine Do?

Orthopedic surgeons who specialize in sports medicine are trained to do and treat everything that a primary care sports medicine doctor can. They are also trained in the operative treatment of any of those conditions. Common surgical procedures for an orthopedic sports medicine doctor include:

  • Knee surgery: meniscus, anterior cruciate ligament injury (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament injury (PCL)
  • Hip surgery: Femoroacetabular impingement (FAI)
  • Achilles tendon
  • Ankle: lateral ankle ligaments, ankle osteochondral lesions
  • Spine: disc herniation, disc degeneration
  • Shoulder: superior labrum anterior to posterior (SLAP) lesions, dislocation, rotator cuff tears

Though all of these injuries can be caused directly by athletic participation, many of these injuries can also be caused by old age and bodily degeneration. Because of this, orthopedic surgeons who work in sports medicine often work with many non-athlete patients, particularly among the geriatric population.

Which Sports Medicine Physician Should I Go See?

There is no clear-cut answer to this question. The appropriate provider is going to depend on the level of care that one needs. If one’s needs are surgical, at some point they are going to be referred to an orthopedic surgeon. However, a primary care sports medicine physician could handle all other parts of care (recall that 90% of sports injuries are non-surgical) and refer to a surgeon if need be. If an individual is searching for a provider, they should feel free to visit either type. However, if they already have an existing primary care sports medicine doctor, it may be best to see them first and let them decide if a referral is needed.

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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