Definition and Overview

Sports medicine, also referred to as sport and exercise medicine, is a specialized branch of medicine that focuses on physical fitness, as well as the treatment and prevention of injuries and illnesses related to sports and exercises. Sports medicine also deals with helping people and athletes improve their athletic performance, prevent injuries and recover from illnesses.

Sports medicine focuses solely on musculoskeletal care, which means the care of patients with injuries or problems in the muscles, bones, tendons, joints and ligaments. Among common acute musculoskeletal injuries that sports medicine specialists handle include:

  • sprain,strains and cramps
  • muscle tears
  • ligament or cartilage injuries
  • heel pain, plantar fasciitis
  • bumps and bruises
  • simple fractures (where the bone does not come through the skin)
    Sport specialists also treat chronic problems such as:

  • back pain

  • arthritis
  • tendon problems including hamstrings, Achilles tendon, and rotator cuff
  • bursitis (a condition characterized by painful swelling of fluid sacs such as around shoulders or hips)

When should you see a sports medicine specialist

Sports medicine specialists are often sought by athletes, especially professional ones. However, one doesn't have to be a professional athlete to see a sports doctor. Doctors in the field treat athletes as well as sports enthusiasts who participate in sports or rigorous activities for wellness, leisure or hobby. Moreover, sports physicians can provide support to anyone who wishes to become physically active or is already physically active. Whatever the age or activity level, a sports medicine provider can offer necessary guidance and support in carrying out one's activities to optimize health and physical activity.

More specifically, sports medicine specialists can help you, athlete or not, in one or a combination of the following:

  • Should you wish to get good results from an exercise program or increase fitness level.
  • If you wish to consult on ways to prevent injury for specific rigorous activities.
  • If you wish to regain maximum function and mobility, especially with underlying illness such as asthma or diabetes.
  • For those who have disabilities and wish to increase physical capabilities
  • Those with acute injuries such as muscle strains, ankle sprains, fractures, knee and shoulder injuries
  • Those with injuries related to overuse including tendonitis and stress fractures
  • For consultation on proper nutrition and supplementation
  • For those with injuries or sickness yet wish to resume athletic activities (including those with concussion or head injuries, heart or lung conditions, diabetes, thyroid problems and other endocrine disorders
  • For recommendations for conditioning and strength training exercises

What is a sports medicine specialist

Sports medicine is a practice performed by a sports medicine specialist or a sports physician. As a physician, a sports doctor is board-certified in the fields of Emergency Medicine, Internal Medicine, Family Medicine, Pediatrics or in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Aside from a degree in medicine (which totals eight years), he or she has to obtain an additional training in Sports Medicine through an accredited sub-specialization or fellowship in Sports Medicine Program.

Fellowship programs in sports medicine include thorough training in assessment, diagnosis, evaluation and rehabilitation of a spectrum of sports-related injuries. Physicians also receive hands-on training in performing physical examinations and in the interpretation of MRI or x-ray results. In order to practice Sports medicine as a professional, a physician must pass a national Sports Medicine certification examination and hold a Certificate of Added Qualification in this field. Sports medicine doctors also continue their medical education through re-examination every ten years. In their practice, a sports medicine doctor leads a team of specialty physicians and surgeons including osteopath doctors, nutritionists, and dietitians, as well as physical therapists and athletic trainers to help assist athletes and athletic people.

Sports medicine doctors are trained to meet the increasing demands of the modern health care environment. They are able to perform the following responsibilities for the athletic populace:

  • Comprehensive pre-event participation physical examination
  • Assessment and proper management of injury
  • Specialized care for special populations including disabled, geriatric, women, etc.
  • Dealing with sports psychology issues and substance use
  • Meeting the general and sports-related medical needs of athletes
  • Proper education on injury and illness prevention
  • Coordination of care with sports medicine team
  • Proper communication with athletes' coaches, trainers, and even with their families

Sports medicine specialist vs. Orthopedic doctor

Sports medicine specialist is not to be equated with an orthopedic surgeon. Although both are well-experienced in musculoskeletal medicine, sports doctors are limited to non-surgical treatment of these conditions. Meanwhile, orthopedic surgeons are highly-trained in operative treatment, but not solely on sports-related injuries. Sports medicine specialists are able to provide comprehensive non-surgical care and treatment as well as guide appropriate therapies. They seek the expertise of orthopedic surgeons as a last resort or to expedite the treatment process of certain conditions.

What to expect in a sports medicine session

If you are seeing a sport doctor for the first time, expect to go through a standard interview where you will be asked about your medical history, current condition, nature and history of your injuries, possible illnesses, and other pertinent information related to your health.

A thorough physical examination would follow which may also include breathing tests, stress test and compartment pressure testing. Depending on the symptoms and results of the physical examination, the sports medical doctor may suggest that you go through tests such as x-rays and MRI to further elucidate the nature of your injury. For those with heart or lung conditions, tests such as ECG, EKG or Holter monitoring testing may be recommended. Based on the results of these tests, an accurate diagnosis of your condition will be presented along with a treatment or exercise plan appropriate for your circumstances.


  • American Medical Society for Sports Medicine. “What is a Sports Medicine Specialist?” Available:

  • The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. “Pathways to a Career in Sports Medicine” Available:

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