Teen Sports Physicals: What to Expect

According to the Tennessee State Board of Education, 78 percent of teens get their only physical examinations during sports physicals.
According to the Tennessee State Board of Education, 78 percent of teens get their only physical examinations during sports physicals.

Sports physicals, also known as pre-participation sports physical examinations, are endorsed by the National Federation of State High School Associations and required by most states before your teen is allowed to participate in a new sport or new sport season. Even when not specifically required, it's just sound practice to be sure your teen is in good physical condition before suiting up, both for their safety and your peace of mind.


Why Sports Physicals are Necessary

First things first: Sports physicals and physical wellness exams are two different things.

Sports physicals don't require the comprehensive wellness check usually conducted at annual physical exams by pediatricians or doctors, which include everything from health history to lab tests to vision and hearing screening. They're not intended to.


Sports physicals are required by most schools and are intended to help prevent and protect teen athletes from sports-related injuries. These exams should find any problems that could interfere with physical activity, and usually that means concentrating on possible heart problems and previous injuries, so they can be prevented or properly treated before the season begins.


Who Should Perform the Physical

A doctor of medicine, osteopathic physician, physician's assistant, certified nurse practitioner or a registered nurse who has received specialized training are all usually able to perform sports physicals. Many school districts offer sports-specific physical exams at school.

While at-school exams do a fine job of addressing issues and screening for potential problems that may pop up for athletes such as nutrition, training and exercise (including overtraining) and injuries (including overuse injuries), the benefit of paying a visit to your family's pediatrician is that you know your teen will have a complete exam. This includes building a medical history and detecting early problems.



Medical History

A sports physical exam varies depending on who performs it, but you can count on one thing: the physician or nurse will be asking questions about your child's and your family's medical histories. It's likely to not be as detailed or in-depth as a medical history conducted at an annual wellness exam, paying more attention to sports-related questions.

It's important for the medical professional conducting the exam to know if your teen has had any prior injuries (such as fractures, concussions, and heat illness), has any allergies or chronic conditions (such as asthma), any exercise-induced symptoms (such as fainting or chest pain) and a list of current medications (prescription and over-the-counter).



Physical Examination

Much like during an annual back-to-school physical, a physical examination is a big part of the pre-participation sports exam.

The physical exam conducted during a sports physical is basic compared to a full wellness exam and will usually include vision testing, plus height, weight, lung and abdomen checks. The doctor will also likely listen for heart murmurs or an irregular heartbeat, and test posture, flexibility and muscle strength. Males will have a genital and testicular exam. And if it's not up-to-date, expect a tetanus shot.


If everything looks normal, the doctor will sign a release form stating the athlete is cleared to participate in this season's sport.


If There's a Problem

In most instances, finding a problem during a routine sports physical is not going to keep young, healthy student athletes on the sidelines. Typical problems that arise include adjusting asthma medications to teaching your teen how to properly stretch or buy shoes that will help prevent or mitigate shin or knee pain. If a bigger problem or new condition is discovered, the doctor may prescribe further testing and follow-up examinations or treatment (such as rehabilitation of an injury). While this may mean your athlete is benched for a few weeks, or even the rest of the season, it's important for kids and teens to listen to their bodies and take physical problems, such as recurring pain, seriously.

Injuries that happen on the sports field can turn into chronic and even lifelong problems if not properly attended to.