Your primary care physician is your first stop for most of your health care needs, and they can refer you to any other types of providers who are better quallified to treat your ailments directly. But what if you are an athlete or a person who is very physically active? You might want to consider the expertise of a physician who specializes in treating patients like yourself — those who are on the move daily and whose bodies encounter more use than that of an inactive person. You might need a sports medicine physician. Your sports medicine physician serves as a specialized primary care doctor, for your active lifestyle needs. 

What is a sports medicine physician?

Sports medicine physicians are doctors who specialize in treating athletes or very active people. They diagnose and treat injuries related to sports or physical activity. This type of doctor is primarily concerned with your athletic health and can create a treatment plan specific to your injuries for optimum recovery. A sports medicine physician can also give you advice on injury prevention, nutrition, lifestyle and ways to improve your overall health and fitness level. This type of doctor may be an allopathic or osteopathic physician.  

Reasons to see a sports medicine physician

When your health impacts your sport, it's time to find a sports medicine physician. Your primary care doctor can help with individual ailments as they arise, but if you are committed to your active lifestyle, a doctor who specializes in high-level physical activity might be a better fit for you. Ways that a sports medicine physician can help you include:

  • Diagnosing and treating injuries
  • Help manage conditions, such as asthma, that interfere with your sport
  • Offer advice regarding nutrition
  • Help with the prevention of future injuries
  • Provide instruction for increasing fitness
  • Suggest lifestyle improvements relevant to physical activity

You don't have to be a competitive athlete to see a sports medicine physician. Other reasons to find this type of specialist include:

  • Wanting to begin an exercise program
  • Being a "weekend warrior"
  • A job that requires fitness and athleticism
  • Wanting to improve your overall health
  • Sustaining an injury, such as a concussion, and wanting to resume exercise

What does a sports medicine physician do?

If you have an issue that's interfering with your athleticism or level of activity, sports medicine physicians can help. They assess the condition by discussing your symptoms and running tests such as blood work, bone scans or MRIs, if necessary.

Once your doctor has reviewed your test results, they will devise a plan of action for your particular concern, whether it be recovery from injury, prevention of a new injury or improvements to your overall fitness and function. This might involve nutritional adjustments, home exercise, physical therapy or even a referral to a different specialist.

How is a sports medicine physician certified?

A sports medicine physician has the same amount of training as any medical practitioner, with an additional 1-2 years of fellowship training in sports medicine. Because sports medicine is not a residency program, licensed medical school graduates who wish to become sports medicine physicians must first complete their residency doing something else, such as family medicine or internal medicine.

Once they have completed their residency, instead of starting a medical practice, they continue their training with a sports medicine fellowship. This extra training provides specialized expertise in the treatment of athletic injuries, often involving attendance at sporting events to provide medical support if needed. Sports medicine fellowship participants also receive additional training in exercise physiology, nutrition, cardiology and rehabilitation.

Referral and research

See your primary physician about your concerns, and ask about the sports medicine physicians in your area. You may need a referral, depending on the type of insurance you have.

Even if your doctor has recommendations, it's always good to do some independent research, such as online reviews from other patients. When you find a doctor you want to try, check with their office to ensure that your insurance covers the service. If for any reason you're not comfortable with the doctor you've met, continue looking until you find a specialist that is a good fit for you.

First meeting with your sports medicine physician

When you meet with your sports medicine physician, be prepared to provide information relating to your injury or sport. Some questions you may be asked include:

  • How often do you participate in your activity?
  • What is your intensity level?
  • Do you compete and if so, how often?
  • What is your history of injuries?
  • Do you have any complicating health conditions such as diabetes or asthma?

It helps to come to your first appointment with a list of your own questions as well as any concerns that you may have. Keep a log of your symptoms and bring it to each appointment. Ask the doctor which symptoms to expect, which (if any) to be concerned by, and when and how quickly you can resume your activities.

Some people are afraid to see a sports medicine physician for fear that they'll be told they have to give up their sport. However, it's better to receive professional care and guidance than proceeding in an unsafe fashion. Don't ignore pain, swelling, range of motion loss or any other symptoms that seem out of the ordinary. The sooner you get professional help, the faster you will be on the road to recovery and back in action.