How to Find a Specialist Who Works With Sports Injuries

Therapist Testing mobility of foot
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Playing sports can often result in aches and pains, or an injury that needs to be seen by a doctor or a specialist for proper diagnosis and treatment. Choosing the right physician is often one of the most difficult parts of dealing with an injury. The following tips may help you decide if a sports medicine specialist is right for you.

What Is Sports Medicine?

Sports medicine is the study and practice of medical principles related to the science of sports, particularly in the areas of:

  • Sports injury diagnosis and treatment
  • Sports injury prevention

Other specialties may incorporate or emphasize sports training and athletic performance into their respective fields, including:

What Is a Sports Medicine Specialist?

A sports medicine specialist is an individual with specialized education and training who focuses on the medical and therapeutic aspects of sports participation and physical activity. This person can be a physician, surgeon, or another provider who commonly works with athletes.

Athletes often prefer seeing a provider who has experience treating athletes. The best way to find them is to ask for references from other athletes. Local sports teams, clubs, and healthcare organizations should be able to steer you in the right direction. Once you have some recommendations, you will want to double-check their qualifications.

While board certification in sports medicine is not available, subspecialty certification in sports medicine is available for qualified board-certified orthopedic surgeons. For nonsurgical sports medicine physicians, a Certificate of Added Qualifications in Sports Medicine has been made available to clinicians who already have board certification through the American Board of Family Practice, Pediatrics, Internal Medicine, and Emergency Medicine.

What Doctor Should You See First for a Sports Injury?

If you belong to an HMO or PPO, you may find that your primary care physician is the first person you see for your injury. Your family doc may not be a sports medicine specialist, but may have all the expertise needed to deal with your particular injury. Minor or straightforward musculoskeletal injuries like acute sprains and strains will respond well to immediate standard treatments.

If, however, you have a complicated overuse or training injury, a chronic condition such as tendonitis, or the need for surgery, you will probably be referred to a specialist.

Can Your Family Doctor Treat You for a Sports Injury?

Yes, nearly all family practice physicians can diagnose and treat a wide range of sports-related injuries. If necessary, they will refer you to someone with additional training in sports medicine or an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon.

When to See a Surgeon First

If your injury will likely require surgery and your insurance allows self-referral, you may choose to see an orthopedic surgeon first.

However, most sports injuries and even fractures can be treated by a primary care or sports medicine physician. If you do require surgery, your primary care doctor can provide recommendations for an orthopedic surgeon.

Other Specialists to Consider

After diagnosis by a sports medicine orthopedic surgeon or sports medicine physician, other providers may be involved in the care of sports-related injuries.


For problems of the foot, you might see a podiatrist. These clinicians have several years of residency beyond internship during which they study musculoskeletal problems of the foot and ankle exclusively. Podiatrists who focus on sports medicine injuries may work with runners and other athletes prone to foot and ankle injuries. They also perform biomechanical analysis, assess gait, and make orthotics as needed.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists treat injuries based on a clinician's diagnosis. They often subspecialize in sports medicine and orthopedic injuries. Finding the right physical therapist can be a huge asset to an athlete because they integrate training and rehab principles into injury recovery.


Chiropractors perform treatments that relieve pressure on various areas of the body. This type of treatment is done without prescription medication or surgery, so some athletes prefer to try such means first. Chiropractors often work in conjunction with massage therapists to treat a variety of musculoskeletal conditions.

Athletic Trainers

Certified athletic trainers are trained professionals who work exclusively with athletes. Most work with sports teams on the high school and college level, but many now work in health clubs and with medical clinics. A certified trainer can help decide which injuries require a trip to a specialist and can make the referral if necessary.

Holistic Practitioners

Holistic health care practitioners use non-invasive, non-pharmaceutical techniques and therapies such as acupuncture, medical herbalism, homeopathy, and other non-traditional methods to treat conditions and illnesses. Some may have a specific interest in treating sports related injuries.

Where you go often depends upon your injury, your treatment preference, and what you've tried in the past. Remember that medicine is an art, and the treatment of your sports injury should be tailored to your specific goals of healing and performance. It is important to find a doctor who can design a treatment plan that works for you and with your lifestyle.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor or Specialist

When selecting someone to treat your injury or provide advice, personal recommendations from trusted sources are the best way to screen providers. If you don't have a good recommendation, you may look for a certified sports medicine physician. When you call the office, you may want to ask:

  • What degrees and certifications do you hold?
  • What special training do you have in sports medicine?
  • What sort of experience do you have treating athletes?
  • What is your treatment specialty?

By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.