Sports Medicine Professionals (Care of the Young Athlete)

View spanish version, share, or print this article.

Athletes may deal with many different types of
medical personnel after an injury. Athletes also may be referred by their
primary care doctors to a sports medicine doctor or other sports medicine
specialists for further evaluation and treatment. The following is information
from the American Academy of Pediatrics about the most common sports medicine
specialists.

Sports medicine doctors (primary care)

Primary care sports medicine doctors are
pediatricians, family medicine doctors, and other doctors with special training
in sports medicine. Training includes 4 years of medical school and 3 years of
general residency training. In addition, some have 1 to 2 additional years of
fellowship training in sports medicine and a Certificate of Added Qualification
(CAQ). Primary care sports medicine doctors diagnose, treat, and manage
musculoskeletal and medical problems, including the following:

  • Sprains and strains

  • Dislocations

  • Ligament injuries

  • Fractures

  • Apophysitis

  • Tendinitis

  • Overuse injuries

  • Cartilage injuries

  • Exercise-induced asthma

  • Concussions

  • Nutrition and supplement issues

  • Diabetes

  • Eating disorders

  • Stress fractures

  • Heat illness

  • Unique conditions of the athlete with
    special needs

Sports medicine doctors (orthopedic)

Orthopedic sports medicine doctors are
orthopedic surgeons with special training that specialize in operative
treatment. Training includes 4 years of medical school, 5 years of orthopedic
residency, 1 year of additional study in sports medicine, and CAQ from the
American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgery with the Sports Medicine Subspecialty
Board Certification. Orthopedic sports medicine doctors diagnose, treat, and
manage musculoskeletal problems including the following:

  • Limb and spine deformities (such as club
    foot, scoliosis)

  • Gait abnormalities (limping)

  • Bone and joint infections

  • Sprains and strains

  • Dislocations

  • Ligament injuries

  • Fractures

  • Apophysitis

  • Tendinitis

  • Overuse injuries

  • Cartilage injuries

Certified athletic trainers

Your school or team may have a certified
athletic trainer, or ATC, who may be the first person to evaluate you after an
injury. They can help with assessing injuries, initial care, referring to
doctors or other medical specialists, rehabilitation, and determining readiness
for a safe return to play. Athletic trainers can also help organize injury
prevention programs and help with taping, bracing, or special equipment to help
protect or prevent injuries.

Certified athletic trainers must complete a
4-year college degree in athletic training and undergo rigorous testing to
become certified and maintain their certification. Many go on to complete a
master’s program in sports medicine. Certified athletic trainers work
closely with physicians, physical therapists, and other members of the sports
medicine team. They can be a valuable liaison between the injured athlete and
the coaches to help explain the injury and treatment.

Physical therapists

Your doctor may refer you to a physical
therapist to help you recover from your injury. Physical therapists have a
minimum of a bachelor’s degree, although many have master’s-level
or doctoral training in the use of special techniques to treat musculoskeletal
injuries. This includes ultrasound, electric stimulation, massage, manual
therapy, and therapeutic exercise. Physical therapists work with your doctor to
set up individual exercise programs for general fitness and to help players with
sport-specific skills. Some physical therapists are also certified as athletic
trainers and can offer both services.

Chiropractors

Chiropractors receive a doctorate in
chiropractic after 4 years of postgraduate training to deal with musculoskeletal
conditions, injuries, and pain. Many chiropractors focus on the spine and
alignment issues to treat an injury or pain. Chiropractic treatment often
involves spinal manipulation and/or adjustments to correct possible
malalignment.

Vigorous spinal manipulation in a young person
who may already have a hypermobile or “loose” spine must be done
with caution, if it is done at all. Any child with back pain should be examined
by a medical doctor prior to chiropractic treatment. There may be other
important aspects of diagnosis and treatment, including the evaluation for
underlying medical conditions, use of specialized radiology studies, use of
therapeutic exercise, and use of prescription medicines, which require the
involvement of other specialists.

Podiatrists

Podiatrists are specialists for problems of the
foot who receive 4 years of postgraduate doctoral-level training and then
complete a 2- or 3-year residency. They are trained to diagnose and treat foot
and ankle problems using both surgical and nonsurgical methods. Podiatrists can
order x-rays or other special diagnostic tests, prescribe medicines, prescribe
physical therapy, and create custom arch supports for foot problems if needed.
While many lower body overuse problems can be linked to the foot, pain in the
knee, hip, or back is not in the podiatrist’s area of expertise.

Other sports medicine professionals

Other individuals and medical specialists may
assist athletes with training, injury prevention, or injury management. These
include personal trainers, massage therapists, acupuncturists, sports
nutritionists, and sports psychologists. Each has specific training in their
field. However, none of these specialists are certified to diagnose injuries,
prescribe treatment, or give medical clearance to return to play.