Sports Medicine Doctor: Your Primary Care & Sports Injury Specialist

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What is a sports medicine doctor?

A sports medicine doctor specializes in the prevention, diagnosis and nonsurgical treatment of exercise- and sports-related injuries. Sports medicine doctors care for sports teams, individual athletes, and other physically active people. Sports medicine doctors are experts in helping people maximize their fitness and performance potential.

A sports medicine doctor typically:

  • Evaluates a patient’s medical, exercise and athletic history

  • Educates the patient about sports injury prevention and how to safely return to sports and exercise after injury

  • Performs a physical exam that includes evaluation of blood pressure and vital signs, general health, and current or potential injuries

  • Orders and interprets laboratory and imaging tests and prescribes medications

  • Diagnoses and treats acute and chronic conditions due to injuries from sports or activity

  • Provides direct care for sports- and activity-related injuries and conditions in the office, hospital, clinic, and rehabilitation facility

  • Oversees and monitors sports training and exercise programs to reduce the risk of injuries

  • Works closely with your primary care doctor and other specialists and members of your healthcare team to provide optimal care

Sports medicine doctors may also be known by the following names: sports doctor, sports medicine physician, sports injury specialist, and sports medicine specialist.

Who should see a sports medicine doctor?

Many people see a sports medicine doctor after their primary care doctor, personal trainer, or coach diagnoses or suspects a sports- or exercise-related injury. This includes injuries of the bones, joints and muscles, such as sprains, strains, overuse injuries, and pain with exercise. This also includes any condition that affects your ability to participate in sports or exercise, such as asthma and diabetes.

Seeing an experienced sports medicine doctor for early evaluation and treatment is the best way to reduce the risk of permanent or worsening injury, reduced athletic performance, disability, and other complications.

When should you see a sports medicine doctor?

Consider seeking care from a sports medicine doctor if you have any of the following symptoms or conditions:

  • Decrease in athletic performance or hitting a plateau in performance

  • Headaches or dizziness with exercise or sports

  • Pain or discomfort from an old sports injury that recurs with activity

  • Pain, cramping, redness or swelling during or after exercise or sports

  • Skipped menstrual periods or other cycle changes

  • Unusual or unexpected shortness of breath with exercise

You should also seek care from a sports medicine doctor under the following situations:

  • You are an active person or athlete and want a doctor to take care of all of your general health needs as well as sports- or exercise-related problems and guidance. For example, you can see an internist or family medicine doctor who is also board certified in sports medicine.

  • You are an active person or athlete and want to prevent injuries.

  • You want advice about nutrition and hydration to maximize performance, fitness and health.

  • You have a child who participates in sports and you want to prevent injuries and ensure the training is safe for his or her age and development.

  • You have or want to prevent chronic diseases, such as asthma, diabetes, arthritis, osteoporosis, or obesity, and want to begin or increase an exercise or training program to improve fitness and reduce health risks.

  • You want to start or return to an exercise program or sports after an injury or illness.

  • You are an older adult or anyone who has not been active and want to begin a safe exercise program.

What conditions and diseases does a sports medicine doctor treat?

A sports medicine doctor treats people with sports and exercise injuries, as well as people who want to improve their general fitness or athletic performance and prevent injuries. Conditions a sports medicine doctor may treat include:

What tests does a sports medicine doctor perform or order?

A sports medicine doctor can order or perform and interpret a wide variety of exams and diagnostic tests including:

  • General health and screening tests including complete blood count (CBC), urinalysis, chest X-ray, blood glucose (sugar) test, electrolyte tests, liver and kidney function tests, blood pressure screening, and blood oxygen levels (pulse oximetry)

  • Imaging tests including X-rays, ultrasounds, computed tomography (CT) scans, nuclear scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)

What procedures and treatments does a sports medicine doctor perform or order?

Sports medicine doctors design treatment plans that may include the services of other doctors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers. The treatment plan varies depending on your diagnosis.

Sports medicine doctors do not perform surgery. Sports-related injuries that require surgery are often performed by an orthopedic surgeon. Procedures and treatments that may be performed by sports medicine doctors or their treatment teams include: 

  • Arthrocentesis (remove fluid from a joint) to test for infection and other conditions

  • Guidance for exercise and training including strength and cardiovascular training and improving flexibility

  • Healthy lifestyle plans to help healthy people and those with chronic diseases achieve better health and fitness

  • Medications including anti-inflammatories and steroid injections

  • Physical therapy and therapeutic exercise to improve strength, mobility and fitness

  • Post-surgical rehabilitation and recovery to help people return to sports and exercise. This includes rehab after surgery for ligament injuries, bone fractures, carpal tunnel syndrome, hip and knee replacement surgeries, back pain, and back surgeries.

  • Return-to-play decisions for a sick or injured athlete

  • Sports nutrition guidance including advice about supplements and hydration

  • Sports team healthcare including sports physicals, injury assessment and management, and sports psychology and substance abuse issues

  • Stabilization and initial treatment for serious injuries on the sports field. On-site care can also include suturing cuts, splinting broken bones, and bandaging.

Sports medicine doctor training and certification

A doctor may practice sports medicine without becoming board certified in the specialty. However, education, training, experience and certification are key elements in establishing a doctor’s level of competence. Board certification verifies that a doctor has completed residency training in the specialty and has passed competency examinations.

Sports medicine doctors are board certified by one of the following Boards:

  • American Board of Emergency Medicine

  • American Board of Family Medicine

  • American Board of Internal Medicine

  • American Board of Pediatrics

  • American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

A board-certified sports medicine doctor is a licensed MD (Doctor of Medicine) or DO (Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine) who has:

  • Graduated from medical school or a college of osteopathic medicine, earning an MD or DO degree

  • Earned specialty certification from the American Board of Emergency Medicine, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Pediatrics, or Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation

  • Completed a sports medicine fellowship or other approved training program

  • Passed an examination in the subspecialty of sports medicine

To maintain board certification in sports medicine, a doctor must complete the certifying Board’s Maintenance of Certification program.

There are no subspecialties of sports medicine recognized by the American Board of Medical Specialties. However, there are sports medicine doctors who are leaders in their field. Other board-certified specialists, such as orthopedic surgeons and emergency medicine doctors, also treat people with sports injuries. Talk to your doctor about the best type of specialist or subspecialist for you and for referrals to well-respected doctors. When considering a sports medicine doctor, ask him or her to provide details about the training and experience they have.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2017 Nov 27
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. What board certification means to your patients - and your career. American Board of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. https://www.abpmr.org/Primary.
  2. Specialty and Subspecialty Certificates. American Board of Medical Specialties. http://www.abms.org/member-boards/specialty-subspecialty-certificates/.
  3. Injury Prevention Resources. The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. http://www.stopsportsinjuries.org/STOP/Prevent/STOP/Prevent_Injuries/Our_Resources.aspx.  
  4. What is a Sports Medicine Specialist? American Medical Society for Sport Medicine. https://www.amssm.org/what-is-a-sports-medicine-specalist.php.