Should You See a Sports Medicine Specialist for Your Sports Injury?

How to Find a Specialist Who Works With Athletes and Sports Injuries

Testing mobility of foot.
Testing mobility of foot. Jan-Otto/ GettyImages

Playing sports can often result in aches and pains or an injury that needs to be seen by a doctor or a specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment. Do you need to see a sports medicine specialist for every sports injury ache or pain? Choosing the right physician is often one of the most difficult parts of dealing with any injury. The following tips may help you decide if a sports medicine specialist is right for you.

What is Sports Medicine?

Sports medicine is the study and practice of medical principles related to the science of sports, particularly in the areas of:

What is a Sports Medicine Specialist?

A sports medicine specialist is an individual with specialized education and training who focuses on the medical and therapeutic aspects of sports participation and physical activity. This person can be a physician, surgeon or another provider who commonly works with athletes.

Athletes often prefer seeing a provider who has experience treating athletes. The best way to find them is to ask for references from other athletes. Local sports teams, clubs, and health care organizations should be able to steer you in the right direction. Once you have some recommendations, you will want to check their qualifications.

While board certification in Sports Medicine is not available, an additional certification exam was made available in 1993 that grants a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Sports Medicine. This certificate has been made available to clinicians who already have Board Certification through the American Board of Family Practice, Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Emergency Medicine.

Who Should I See First for a Sports Injury?

If you belong to an HMO or PPO, you may find that your primary care physician is the first person you see for your injury. You family doc may not be a sports medicine specialist, but may have all the expertise needed to deal with your particular injury. Minor or straight-forward musculoskeletal injuries like acute sprains and strains will respond well to immediate standard treatments. If, however, you have a complicated overuse or training injury, or a chronic condition such as tendonitis, or the need for surgery you will probably get referred to a specialist.

Can My Family Doctor Treat My Sports Injury?

Yes, nearly all family practice physicians can diagnosis and treat a wide range of sports-related injuries. If necessary, they will refer you to someone with additional training in sports medicine or orthopedic sports medicine surgeon.

Should I See a Surgeon First?

If your injury will likely require surgery, and your insurance allows self-referral, you may choose to see an orthopedic surgeon first.

However, most sports injuries and even fractures can be treated by a primary care or sports medicine physician. And if you do require surgery, your primary care doctor can provide recommendations for an orthopedic surgeon in the community.

Other Sports Medicine Specialists

For problems that originate below the knee, you might see a Podiatrist. These clinicians have several years of residency beyond internship during which they study musculoskeletal problems exclusively. Podiatrists typically work with runners and other athletes prone to foot and ankle injuries. They also perform biomechanical analysis, assess your gait and make orthotics as needed.

Physical Therapists generally treat injuries based upon a clinician's diagnosis. They often specialize in sports medicine and orthopedics. Finding the right PT can be a huge asset to an athlete because they integrate training and rehab principles into injury recovery.

Orthopedists focus on bone and joint problems. They have several years of residency beyond their internships. Many orthopedists specialize in areas such as back surgery, joint replacement, and ACL repairs.

Chiropractors perform spinal adjustments that relieve pressure on various nerves. This type of treatment is done without prescription medication or surgery so many athletes prefer to try such means first. Chiropractors often work in conjunction with massage therapists to treat a variety of musculoskeletal conditions.

Certified Athletic Trainers are skilled professionals who work exclusively with athletes. Most work with sports teams on the high school and college level, but many now work in health clubs and with medical clinics. An ATC can help decide which injuries require a trip to a specialist, and can make the referral if necessary.

Holistic Health Care Practitioners use non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical techniques and therapies such as acupuncture, medical herbalism, homeopathy and other non-traditional methods to treat conditions and illnesses.

Where you go often depends upon your injury, your treatment preference, and what you've tried in the past. Remember that medicine is still very much an art, and while some injuries can be treated by the book, there are many things we don't yet know about sports injuries, healing, and performance. Finding a doctor who can design a treatment plan that works with you and with your lifestyle can be a challenge, but it is becoming easier all the time.

Questions to Ask a Sports Medicine Specialist

When selecting someone to treat your injury are provide advice, personal recommendations from trusted sources are the best way to screen providers. If you don't have a good recommendation, you may look for a certified sports medicine physician. When you call the office, you may also want to ask the following questions:

  • What degrees and certifications do you hold?
  • What special training do you have in sports medicine
  • What sort of experience do you have treating athletes?
  • What is your treatment specialty?

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