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What your student’s sports physical can tell you

Austen Stasiak, MD

With summer around the corner, now is a great time to schedule sports physicals for children attending camps or school tryouts during vacation. We sat down with family medicine physician Dr. Austen Stasiak to answer questions about why these pre-participation exams (PPEs) are important.

Q: How does a sports physical help active kids?
Dr. Stasiak: The exam helps children and adolescents prepare to safely participate in athletic activities. Sports physicals can determine if your young athlete is healthy and ready to play. They can also reveal how to reduce the long-term risk of sports-related injuries, uncover any medical conditions that require extra attention, and lift old physical restrictions. We evaluate a child’s:

  • General health, including blood pressure
  • Fitness level
  • Current injuries
  • Conditions that might increase the risk of injury
  • Level of physical maturity

Beyond clearing students for sports, doctors can talk to kids about ignoring the pressure to “shake it off” or push through pain while playing, and listen to and protect their bodies instead. All young athletes should know their limits and report injuries or pain to coaches and parents.

Q: Who conducts a sports physical?
Dr. Stasiak: The child’s personal doctor—either a general practitioner, pediatrician, or sports medicine physician—should perform the exam. Their doctor can provide referrals to physical therapy and other specialties, if necessary. 

Q: When should you get a PPE?
Dr. Stasiak: Plan for your child to get a physical about six weeks before your child wishes to participate in the athletic activity. This provides enough time to evaluate and perhaps heal an existing injury. It also allows time to get fit before the sport starts, which can help prevent injuries. In Washington and Oregon, 7th through 12th grade students must have a physical exam once every two years if they want to start a new sport, or begin a new season. But we recommend an exam every year.

Q: Why do you recommend an annual exam?
Dr. Stasiak: As kids grow and go through puberty, their bones grow quickly and their weight changes. Some conditions like scoliosis and Osgood-Schlatter Disease, which can cause knee pain in adolescents, appear during growth spurts. Plus, the older kids get, the more intense sports become, so there is a greater risk of injury.

Q: What’s involved in a PPE?
Dr. Stasiak: There are two parts: a medical history form and a physical exam. The medical history asks you to consider any family illnesses, such as heart attacks. It also looks at the athlete’s individual medical history, including:

  • History of losing or gaining weight
  • Any dizziness and/or shortness of breath
  • Medications
  • Past conditions such as fractures, concussions, and heat illness
  • Any other past complaints
  • Allergies
  • Menstrual cycles

Q: What happens during the physical exam?
Dr. Stasiak: Multiple physical tests look at the athlete’s health, including his or her abdomen, heart, lungs, muscular skeletal system, and vision. Their doctor might also evaluate posture, scoliosis risk, joint range of motion, knee extension, gait, and limb function. After the test results come back, the physician can either give the athlete full clearance to participate, clearance with some limitations, or require more testing.

Q: What happens if the doctor finds a problem?
Dr. Stasiak: The doctor will work with the athlete and parents to develop a treatment plan. The doctor may also work with coaches to assist an athlete with a medical condition to participate safely.