by Health Tip

Sports physicals and annual physicals are different, but equally important ways to keep your young athletes safe and healthy.

Playing sports helps keep kids fit and they can be a fun way for them to socialize and make friends. But why is it so important for kids to get a sports physical at the beginning of their sports season?

About sports physicals

In the sports medicine field, the sports physical exam — or pre-participation physical examination (PPE) — helps determine whether it's safe for kids to participate in a certain sport. Most states actually require that kids and teens have a sports physical before they can start a new sport or begin a new competitive season. Even if they aren't required by your school or state, getting a sports physical is a good way to make sure your child is in the best health possible when the season starts.

The two main parts to a sports physical are the medical history and the physical exam.

At the end of the exam, the doctor will either fill out and sign a form if everything checks out OK or, in some cases, recommend a follow-up exam, additional tests, or specific treatment for medical problems.

Why a sports physical is important

A sports physical can help athletes find out about and deal with health problems that might interfere with their participation in a sport. For example, for a kid who has frequent asthma attacks but is a starting forward in soccer, a doctor might be able to prescribe a different type of inhaler or adjust the dosage for easier breathing during running.

The doctor can identify risk factors linked to specific sports, give advice on avoiding common injuries in the sport, and may even have some good stretching and strengthening tips for your child.

When and where to go for a sports physical

If your child's school offers the exam, it's convenient to get it done there, but it's still a good idea for your regular doctor to do an exam as well. Your primary care doctor knows your kids — and their health history — better than anyone who might examine them during a school physical.

Getting a sports physical once a year is usually adequate. Any athlete healing from a major injury, however, should get checked out after it's healed before starting to practice or play again.

Getting a physical about six weeks before the sports season begins allows enough time to follow up on something, if necessary. Neither your child nor your doctor will be very happy if the sports physical is the day before baseball practice starts and it turns out there's something that needs to be taken care of.

What about regular physicals?

Regular physicals are different from sports physicals, but both are equally important. Whereas the sports physical focuses on well-being related to athletic issues, the regular physical address kids' overall well-being and includes things not related to sports. You can ask your doctor to do both types of exams during one visit; just be aware that it'll take more time.

After your doctor approves your child to play sports

Even if a sports physical exam doesn't reveal any problems, it's always wise to monitor your kids when they play sports. If you notice changes in their physical condition — even if you think they're minor, such as muscle pain or shortness of breath — talk to the coach or see your doctor. You should also inform the gym (physical education) teacher or coach if your child's health needs have changed in any way or if he or she is taking a new medication.

Just as professional sports stars need medical care to keep them playing their best, so do young athletes. Help give your kids the same edge as the pros by making sure they get their sports physicals.