Monday Medical: Prep for athletics with a sports physical |

Monday Medical: Prep for athletics with a sports physical

Monday Medical

Summer might still be in full swing, but the time to start thinking about sports physicals is now.

Sports physicals are required for students in seventh through twelfth grades who play school sanctioned sports. While originally designed to help screen young athletes for rare heart conditions that can result in sudden cardiac death, sports physicals also help identify potential musculoskeletal issues that impact a teen’s ability to play.

Now that sports physicals can be incorporated into annual well checks, doctors can get a well-rounded view of a teen’s health, said Dr. Dana Fitzgerald, a pediatrician in Steamboat Springs with a certificate of added qualifications in primary care sports medicine.

“(Parents may) feel, ‘My child got a sports physical, so they don’t need a well check.’ That’s something we’re really trying to get people away from, because we can cover so much more ground in a well check,” Fitzgerald said. “Being able to incorporate the sports physical in a well check (helps us) take a global look at a teenager’s health.”

Ideally, a sports physical should take place six to eight weeks before the sports season starts. These exams usually cover the patient’s health history, as well as medical and musculoskeletal conditions.

In a sports physical, Fitzgerald spends a lot of time looking at range of motion and strength, while keeping an eye out for asymmetries. A teenager might not complain about one ankle feeling weaker than the other, but if a hop test shows there’s a substantial difference in strength, a few sessions of physical therapy can help proactively address the issue before an injury occurs.

“Lots of patients come in who have had recurrent ankle sprains and say, ‘Oh, I just have weak ankles,’” Fitzgerald said. “But, if you get them into some physical therapy, you can really help prevent those ankle sprains from coming back during the season.”

Back and shoulder pain are other common complaints that can be addressed with physical therapy.

Parents may also consider having their teens take an ImPACT baseline test, a computer-based test to measure reaction time and cognition that helps doctors recognize and treat concussions. Though not part of a well check or sports physical, these tests are available through school organizations and some physical therapy offices, including SportsMed at Yampa Valley Medical Center.

“If an athlete does sustain a concussion within the season, (the baseline ImPACT test) helps a lot with return-to-play decisions,” Fitzgerald said.

Because teenagers’ brains are still developing, it’s recommended to take the ImPACT test every two years.

When Fitzgerald does a well check and sports physical, she likes to schedule 30 minutes for the appointment, though sometimes, these appointments are 15 or 20 minutes. If parents have additional concerns, Fitzgerald recommends mentioning those when the appointment is booked, so the appropriate time can be reserved.

For the well check portion of the exam, teenagers may first fill out a standard screening questionnaire, which can cover overall health, as well as exposure to drugs, alcohol and sexual activity. Combined with the sports physical questions, doctors have “a nice jumping off point for where we can lead the discussion,” Fitzgerald said.

Incorporating a sports physical into a well check is a great opportunity to gain a well-rounded view of a teenagers’ health.

“We can get a better view of how a teen is doing and be an advocate for their health in so many ways, and not just be an advocate for them having a good sports season,” Fitzgerald said.

Susan Cunningham writes for Yampa Valley Medical Center. She can be reached at

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