All About Sports Medicine

We’ve all felt that sinking feeling. You’re watching the big game, and a player takes a vicious hit from one of the defenders. You could see his ankle twist, and it hurt just looking at it.

From the sidelines, some trainers appear. They perform an initial check, then help the player off the field. As he’s leaving, the player gives a thumbs-up to the crowd and even fans of the other team cheer.

For most people, this is what comes to mind when you hear the words “sports medicine.” However, sports medicine is about a lot more than just treating injured professional athletes. Sports medicine can also be used for amateurs, semi-pro athletes, and even non-athletes. At the end of the day, we’re all human beings, and the same medical principles apply to all of us.

What is Sports Medicine?

Sometimes known as sports and exercise medicine (SEM), sports medicine deals with physical fitness, conditioning, injury prevention, and treatment of injuries caused by physical movement. A sports medicine regimen is designed to promote physical fitness while ensuring that a person is exercising safely.

Sports medicine is a broad field that encompasses several disciplines. Various non-medical specialists and athletic trainers are a key part of treatment. In addition to physical treatment, sports psychologists provide mental health assistance to athletes.

Meanwhile, sports scientists continue to advance the fields of orthopaedics, biomechanics, sports nutrition, and others. As they make new discoveries, sports medicine continues to develop better preventions and treatments.

When it comes to injuries, sports medicine specialists treat two main types of conditions: acute and chronic. An acute condition is something like a sprain, strain, or fracture that happened once and needs treatment. A chronic condition is something like tendonitis or arthritis that will need to be managed in the long term.

What is a Sports Medicine Specialist?

A sports medicine specialist is a healthcare provider who works in the field of sports medicine. Keep in mind that this is a very broad term. For one thing, many sports medicine specialists are ordinary specialists or even family doctors. If your teenage daughter sprains her ankle playing basketball and your doctor prescribes her a high-strength Tylenol, he’s just practiced sports medicine.

On the other hand, even doctors who specifically focus on sports-related injuries will often treat non-athletes. For example, if a construction worker’s leg is broken in a job site accident, that injury isn’t any different than a leg fracture sustained in a soccer game. The same knowledge and techniques that can be used to treat the athlete can be used to treat the construction worker.

In and of itself, sports medicine isn’t a medical speciality like orthopaedics or oncology. That said, many sports medicine specialists are specialists in other fields, particularly orthopaedics. Similarly, sports medicine specialists who treat children are generally board-certified paediatricians.

Moreover, not all sports medicine specialists are doctors. There are other specialities that require certification, and these specialists can be just as important as your physician. Other specialists include:

  • Athletic trainers, who help athletes with strength and performance training to prevent injuries.
  • Physical therapists, who help athletes rehabilitate when an injury has been sustained.
  • Nutritionists, who can help achieve other fitness goals, as well as improve overall health and performance.

What’s the Difference Between a Sports Medicine Specialist and a Sports Medicine Physician?

There’s a small, but important difference between a sports medicine specialist and a sports medicine physician. As we already discussed, a sports medicine specialist is any trained, licensed professional who participates in athletic training or injury treatment. Not all of those people are doctors. In fact, most of them aren’t.

A sports medicine physician is an actual medical doctor who is a sports medicine specialist. After being certified in their own field, an aspiring sports medicine physician must first complete a two-year sports medicine fellowship. If they are successful, they receive a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in sports medicine and become a sports medicine physician.

Now, you might think that most sports medicine physicians would-be surgeons. To be fair, many are orthopaedic surgeons. But the majority of sports medicine physicians actually specialize in non-surgical fields. For example, a sports medicine physician may need to manage:

  • Chronic conditions such as asthma
  • Acute illnesses such as food poisoning
  • Concussions
  • Nutritional deficiencies and other dietary concerns
  • Ergonomic aids, such as prescription shoe insoles

What’s the Difference Between a Sports Medicine Physician and an Orthopedic Surgeon?

The main difference between an orthopaedic surgeon and a sports medicine physician is that orthopaedic surgery is a specific speciality. An orthopaedic surgeon can complete a fellowship in sports medicine and become a sports medicine physician. However, a sports medicine physician with a different speciality would not be qualified to perform orthopaedic surgery.

Orthopaedic surgeons are trained specifically in performing surgery on the musculoskeletal system. This is crucial for treating many serious sports injuries. If you require surgery on a torn ACL, for example, you would require an orthopaedic surgeon.

That said, about 90 percent of sports injuries require no surgery. Sprains and strains, for example, require RICE treatment, pain relief, and possibly rehabilitation. Similarly, injury prevention involves conditioning rather than surgery.

What Types of Sports Medicine Treatment Are Available?

As you can see, “sports medicine” is a very broad term. But there are four main areas that it can be broken down to training/injury prevention, non-surgical sports medicine, physical therapy/rehab, and sports medicine surgery.

Sports Medicine Training and Injury Prevention

There’s an old saying that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. After all, it’s good to have a good doctor. But it’s even better if you never have to go for treatment in the first place.

Injury prevention comes down to two things: conditioning training and technique. Conditioning is essential even for experienced athletes. If you’ve spent the last two months of the offseason doing minimal training, you can’t just jump right back to full intensity. That’s how people get hurt. Instead, a good athletic trainer will help you gradually work your way up.

Similarly, good technique is essential during every workout session. For instance, warmups and cooldowns are a big factor in preventing injury, as is stretching. Maintaining good hydration and knowing your limits are also an important part of staying healthy.

Non-Surgical Sports Medicine Treatment

Even with the best training regimen, injuries will inevitably occur. In this case, the first treatment will typically be non-surgical. This is generally the case for soft tissue injuries in particular.

Compression and intermittent icing can reduce inflammation, which keeps swelling down and puts less pressure on the injury. Rest is also essential in the first few days. If you can stay off the injured limb entirely, a doctor will normally recommend that you do that.

At this point, ordinary strains and sprains will heal on their own. If pain is particularly severe, a doctor may prescribe a prescription pain relief treatment, which can also help reduce inflammation. If pain remains severe after a few days, an MRI or other tests may be warranted to determine if the injury requires more intensive treatment.

Physical Therapy and Rehab

Depending on the severity of an injury, physical therapy or rehabilitation may be required. This therapy needs to be specifically tailored to both the injury and the individual. A course of physical therapy is designed to restore full performance. It can also help with pain management, as well as improving strength and flexibility.

Various treatments may be involved, depending on your specific needs. These may include:

  • Flexibility exercises like stretching
  • Strength and resistance training, such as weight training and core exercise
  • Massage therapy
  • Aquatic therapy
  • Heat therapy
  • Spinal traction
  • Balance training

Sports Medicine Surgery

As we already discussed, roughly 90 percent of sports injuries require no surgery. But what if you’re one of those unlucky 10 percent of people? In that case, you’ll need to see a sports medicine surgeon, who will be an orthopedist for most sports-related injuries.

In many cases, this surgery can be minimally invasive. Modern arthroscopic surgery can be performed through a tiny incision, which means significantly reduced recovery times. It also reduces the risk of complications, as well as minimizing scarring.

Keep in mind that for most injuries, surgery is only considered as a last resort. Even minimally-invasive surgery is riskier than non-invasive treatments. That said, surgery can be used to treat a variety of sports-related injuries, such as:

  • Joint injuries such as elbows, knees, and ankles
  • Soft tissue injuries such as torn tendons, ligaments, and muscles
  • Muscle grafts
  • Nerve damage
  • Spinal injuries
  • Foot injuries
  • Repetitive stress injuries
  • Other traumatic injuries

What Training is Required to Work in Sports Medicine?

As you can imagine, the requirements for working in sports medicine vary by profession. Athletic trainers and physical trainers, for example, should always be board-certified. These careers also require a bachelor’s degree in a related field.

Similarly, nutritionists and dieticians should have a degree in their specific fields. They should also be certified by their respective boards.

As recently as the year 2000, you would have had a tough time finding a sports medicine university program. However, there are now a number of undergraduate and even post-graduate programs in sports medicine, sports science, sports coaching, kinesiology, exercise science, and other similar fields.

For a sports medicine physician, the requirement is 13 years of education. First, they must complete undergraduate school, typically in pre-med. Next, they must complete four years of medical school, after which they will spend three years in residency.

This much is standard for any physician. However, a sports medicine physician must spend an additional two years in a sports medicine fellowship. As a result, they generally earn more than similar physicians without a sports medicine qualification.

Newer fields are continuing to emerge even at the time of this writing. For example, physicians can specialize in the National Football Association’s sports concussion assessment protocol. They can also learn to provide platelet-rich plasma therapy, stem cell therapy, and other advanced treatments.

What About Sports Psychology?

While sports medicine physicians focus on the body, sports medicine psychologists focus on the mind. Sports psychology is a field of psychology that specializes on the mental and emotional strains of intense competition. Sports psychologists can also help athletes to deal with “off-field” issues that are impacting their performance or overall well-being.

Another application of sports psychology is recovery from a serious injury. Major injuries can be traumatic, and this trauma can make it hard to perform on the field. With stress management, psychotherapy, and other tools, a sports psychologist can help athletes overcome mental obstacles to getting back in the game.

Sports psychologists can also treat non-athletes. In this case, treatment often has the opposite goal. Rather than helping athletes deal with real-life issues to improve athletic performance, a sports psychologist can use exercise and physical therapy to improve the quality of life for anybody.

Why is Sports Science Important for Sports Medicine?

So far, we’ve talked about sports medicine in the practical world. We’ve talked about physical trainers and sports nutritionists who help with conditioning. We’ve talked about doctors and physical therapists who help with injuries. We’ve even discussed the sports psychologists who help players with emotional issues.

Sports science provides the theory that backs up all of these practices. It’s a fairly new discipline and has only really been around in the last 50 years. This is a reflection not just of how seriously modern people take sports, but of the emphasis we palace on physical fitness in general.

Sports science involves multiple different specialities, including fields like biomechanics, physiology, and nutrition. Discoveries in all of these fields lead to more efficient, effective training methods.

The goal of sports science is to gain a comprehensive understanding of the human body, exercise, and nutrition. This begins at the cellular level with metabolism and basic cellular mechanics and goes all the way up to the workings of entire body systems.

Sports science also encompasses related fields such as business management. This falls well outside the realm of sports medicine, but it’s important to the overall field of sports science.

Sports Medicine Benefits

So, what benefits does sports medicine offer when compared to non-specialized medicine? There are a handful of distinct advantages.

Better training and injury prevention. Sports medicine specialists are experts in how the human body performs under stress. They know how to boost strength and conditioning, which reduces the risk of future injuries. They also know how to reduce the risk of reinjury after an injury has already been sustained. For an athlete, this means less time hurt, and more time on the field.

Expert, specialized care. Sports medicine specialists and physicians have dedicated their careers specifically to caring for athletes. When an injury occurs, they know what to look for and how to treat it as effectively as possible. They also understand risks from other causes, such as repetitive stress injury, concussions, and tendonitis. With this knowledge, they can create a detailed treatment plan that’s tailored directly to your needs.

The latest in medical treatment. Sports medicine is on the cutting edge of many medical and surgical techniques. For instance, platelet-rich plasma and stem cell therapy can rejuvenate damaged cartilage and manage other injuries. And advanced arthroscopic surgery can simplify treatment for even the worst injuries.

Improved athletic performance. A generalized exercise program can only get you so far. If you want to truly excel, your training regimen needs to be built around your individual strengths and weaknesses. By harnessing the power of sports science, sports medicine specialists can help you build the best training program for your needs.

Sports Medicine Fast Facts

So, what are our main takeaways here? If you remember nothing else, here are the things you need to know about sports medicine:

  • Sports medicine specialists aren’t all physicians. Many are nutritionists, physical therapists, or licensed in other related fields. All of these people work together to build a training and treatment plan.
  • Sports medicine isn’t just for athletes. Because sports medicine encompasses a wide variety of disciplines, sports medicine specialists can help with treating injuries from just about any physical activity.
  • Sports medicine is mostly preventative. The goal of sports medicine is to help athletes remain in peak condition, so that injuries are less likely to happen in the first place. By improving their overall fitness, athletes can also boost their on-field performance.
  • Most sports medicine treatments are non-surgical. Roughly 90 percent of sports-related injuries can be treated with non-invasive techniques. Ice, pain medication, physical therapy, and compression can treat the vast majority of injuries.
  • Sports medicine specialists are all highly-trained individuals. Whether they’re a physical therapist with a certification or a physician with a two-year fellowship, they know what they’re talking about.


As you can see, the fast-growing field of sports medicine is of great importance to professional and amateur athletes alike. As advances in sports medicine continue, we can expect to see even better sports medicine in the years to come. This means fewer injuries, faster recoveries, and improved on-field performance.