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Sports Physicals

You know that playing sports helps keep kids fit and are a fun way for them to socialize and make friends. But you might not know why it’s so important for kids to get a sports physical at the beginning of their sports season.

What Are Sports Physicals?

The sports physical exam — also called the preparticipation physical evaluation (PPE) — helps tell if it’s safe for kids to play a certain sport. Active kids who do not play organized sports should also get regular sports physicals.

The two main parts to a sports physical are the medical history and the physical exam.

Medical History

This part of the exam includes questions about:

  • serious illnesses among family members
  • medical problems and illnesses, such as asthma, diabetes, or COVID-19
  • previous hospitalizations or surgeries
  • allergies (to insect bites, for example)
  • past injuries (including concussions, sprains, or broken bones)
  • whether the child has ever passed out, felt dizzy, had chest pain, or had trouble breathing during exercise
  • medicines (including over-the-counter medicines, dietary supplements, and prescription medicines)

Boys will be asked about testicle pain and girls will be asked about their periods. The doctor will also ask about smoking and vaping, alcohol, drugs, diet pills, or performance-enhancing supplements, including steroids.

The medical history questions are usually on a form that you’ll fill out with your child. Take time to answer the questions carefully.

Physical Examination

During the physical part of the exam, the doctor will usually:

  • record your child’s height and weight
  • take your child’s blood pressure and pulse (heart rate and rhythm)
  • test your child’s vision
  • check the heart, lungs, abdomen, ears, nose, and throat
  • evaluate your child’s posture, joints, strength, and flexibility

Why Is a Sports Physical Important?

A sports physical helps athletes find out about and deal with health problems that might interfere with their participation in a sport. For example, if your child has frequent asthma attacks, the doctor can adjust their medicine so they can breathe more easily when running.

The doctor may have training tips or recommend exercises or physical therapy to help avoid injuries.

When and Where Should We Go for a Sports Physical?

Most children should go to their regular doctor’s office to get a sports physical, since your doctor knows your child and their health history best. Some may get sports physicals at school. During school physicals, kids might go to “stations” set up in the gym. Each one is staffed by a medical professional who gives a specific part of the physical exam.

Schedule sports physicals at least 6 weeks before the sports season starts. If your doctor finds a problem, this should leave enough time to for tests or treatment, if needed. 

Sports physicals are usually good for 1 year, though you probably will have to complete a sports form each season. If there are any changes in your child’s health history, like a new injury or new symptoms (such as chest pain or shortness of breath), they may need to see the doctor before being allowed to play. Let the gym teacher or coach know if there are any changes in your child’s health.

What if There’s a Problem?

It’s very unlikely that your child will be disqualified from playing sports. For most athletes, everything checks out OK and the doctor will fill out and sign the form. For some, the doctor may prescribe medicine, schedule a follow-up exam, do more tests, or recommend treatment (like physical therapy) to help your child play sports safely.

The goal of the sports physical is to make sure kids are safe while playing sports, not to stop them from playing. Rarely, the doctor may find that an athlete can’t play their sport. That doesn’t mean they can’t play any sports, though. For example, children who have had a lot of concussions might not be able to play football but could play another sport, like tennis.

Does My Child Need a Regular Physical Too?

The sports physical focuses on well-being as it relates to playing a sport. Regular checkups are still important for your child’s overall health and well-being. If you plan ahead, the doctor may be able to do both types of exams during one visit. When scheduling your annual visit, mention you need a sports physical and a regular checkup so your doctor can set aside time to do both.

Just as professional sports stars need medical care to keep them playing their best, so do young athletes. Help give your kids the same edge as the pros by making sure they get their sports physicals.