Every fall, desperate parents call in hopes of a quick appointment because they just learned that their child needs a sports physical form filled out to be able to play on a sports team. We try to accommodate them, but sometimes we can’t.
With summer in full swing, most of us are not thinking about our children’s return to school this fall. However, if your child wants to participate in school sports or certain organized sports such as football or cheerleading, now is the time to schedule their sports physical. Summers tend to be a little less busy in many medical clinics, so it’s easier to get an appointment, and if we identify a concern now, we are more likely to have time to address it before the sports season begins.
Ideally, sports physicals should be scheduled with the child’s primary care provider or at least at that clinic. This way, the medical provider already has records of their medical history, past injuries, family medical history, growth and development history, and other relevant information. Also, a sports physical is one of the rare opportunities we get to check in with adolescents. If problems have been developing unnoticed, this is a chance to catch them. Fortunately, sports physicals are covered by medical insurance. Be wary of expensive, cash-only sports physicals in which the form is quickly signed without a sufficient evaluation; this is a disservice to young athletes.
During a sports physical, we review family history, medical history (including asthma, prior concussions, and prior broken bones), surgical history, allergies, and medications. We also screen for concerning symptoms such as chest pain, passing out, or difficulty breathing during exercise. If we see potential problems, we follow up with recovery plans, medication management, and refer patients for follow-up exams with specialists such as cardiologists or orthopedists. We also spend time educating patients and their parents about how to stay healthy during the sports season.
Intense physical activity can put a strain on young bodies, so athletes need to know how to take care of themselves. For patients with asthma, for example, we can tune up their medications to allow young athletes to fully participate in the sport of their choice. During a sports physical, we talk about nutrition and hydration, sleep, and danger signs for injuries from sprains to concussions.
Some sports put adolescents at higher risk for unhealthy eating, either because these athletes feel pressure to bulk up or to drop weight. High-caffeine energy drinks and some muscle-building supplements can be dangerous for young athletes. The pressure to engage in excessive weight loss can, at best, weaken the athlete, and at worst, skew a young athlete’s self-image and lead to an eating disorder. At a time when young bodies need to grow at their own pace, forcing too much or providing too little nutrition can have serious, long-lasting repercussions.
Something else with the potential for lifelong issues is how athletes prevent and/or manage their injuries. Some young athletes may play through injuries because they want to be seen as tough or because they don’t want to let their team down. However, they may find they are never able to reach peak performance because their injury never had an opportunity to heal, or worse, they may face chronic pain for the rest of their lives. And some injuries are harder to see. For athletes who play high-impact sports such as football, soccer, and cheerleading, we discuss the risks of brain injury and share the short-term and long-term symptoms of concussions (e.g., headaches, dizziness, etc.), and review proper management.
Pediatricians encourage sports; we see so many benefits, both physical and emotional. Sports promotes physical fitness, can help build confidence, and can also build teamwork and community. Competition can be healthy, but constant, hyper-competition can also be draining on a young athlete. Breaks for physical and emotional recovery are important.
Please schedule your child’s sports physical now. Let us examine them, educate them, and support them. Let’s identify any potential problems while there is time to get some diagnostics and if necessary, treatment.
Dr. Casey Johnston is a pediatrician at MCHC Health Centers, a community-based and patient-directed organization that serves Mendocino and Lake Counties, providing comprehensive primary healthcare services as well as supportive services such as education and translation that promote access to healthcare. Learn more at mchcinc.org.