An Overview of Sports Medicine

Man treating athlete's knee with a brace

Sports medicine—also known as sports and exercise medicine (SEM)—deals with physical fitness, treatment, and prevention of sports-related injuries. Sports medicine aims to help keep people safe when pursuing their training goals.

Sports medicine specialists treat many physical conditions, including acute traumas such as fractures, sprains, strains, and dislocations. They also treat chronic overuse injuries, including tendonitis, degenerative diseases, and overtraining syndrome.

Sports medicine combines general medical education with the specific principles of sports science, exercise physiology, orthopedics, biomechanics, sports nutrition, and sports psychology. A sports medicine team may involve medical and non-medical specialists, including physicians, surgeons, athletic trainers, sports psychologists, physical therapists, nutritionists, coaches, and personal trainers. Keep reading to learn more about the field of sports medicine.

Sports Medicine Specialists

A sports medicine specialist focuses on the medical, therapeutic, and functional aspects of exercise and works directly with athletes to improve their overall sports performance. The "sports medicine specialist" title does not necessarily mean the specialist is a physician. It can be applied to any number of disciplines for which sports medical practices are used.

Sports medicine is not a medical specialty in and of itself. Instead, it implies additional training focused on the medical aspects of sports and exercise after foundational certification has first been achieved.

Sports Medicine Specialists

Non-physician professionals involved in sports medicine include:

  • Physical therapists: They help people recover from injuries.
  • Certified athletic trainers: These professionals provide rehabilitative programs to help athletes regain strength and prevent future injury.
  • Nutritionists: Nutritionists assist with weight management and nutrition in conjunction with physical training or recovery

Sports Medicine Physicians

Sports medicine physicians are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of sports- or exercise-related injuries and illnesses. While many sports medicine physicians work exclusively with athletes, most will work with anyone who needs treatment after a sports injury.

Sports medicine physicians are typically first certified in family practice, emergency medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, or orthopedics before embarking on a 2-year fellowship in sports medicine. Upon completion, many will earn a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in Sports Medicine from the American Board of Family Medicine.

Most sports medicine physicians deal with non-operative musculoskeletal conditions. Others are orthopedic surgeons who have decided to focus their practice on the surgical treatment of sports injuries. Beyond muscle, bone, and joint injuries, a sports medicine physician will be qualified to treat any number of other associated conditions.

Sports medicine physicians deal with conditions such as head injuries, chronic and acute illnesses, nutrition and supplements, injury prevention, and "return to play" decisions in sick or injured athletes.

Sports Psychologists

Sports psychology is a specific branch of psychology that focuses on athletes' and sports enthusiasts' mental and emotional needs. It is not uncommon for professional sports teams to employ a full-time psychologist to help prepare the team for competition or overcome emotional challenges that can impede performance.

Because athletes face unique stresses, a sports psychologist can help regulate anxiety and improve focus in a specific way to their sport.

They will use various psychology tools and skills to help athletes maintain a robust emotional balance during competition or recovery from a severe sports injury. Sports psychologists also use psychotherapy, stress management, and goal-setting with their patients.

Sports Science Specialists

Sports science, also referred to as exercise science, is the focused study of physiology, anatomy, and psychology as they relate to human movement and physical activity.

As a discipline, exercise science is primarily focused on clinical research, including physiological responses to exercise, comparative effectiveness of exercise techniques, and the impact of performance-enhancing drugs and supplements.

Education and Training

There are numerous job opportunities in sports medicine-related fields. Those pursuing degrees in sports medicine or science often work in a clinical, academic, or service-oriented setting. Others are employed by sports organizations or practice on a freelance basis.

Colleges and universities have begun to aggressively add sports medicine programs to their curriculum. A few years ago, you would be hard-pressed to find much selection. Today, there are undergraduate and post-graduate degrees specific to sports medicine, exercise science, kinesiology, sports coaching, and various other sports-related fields.

Education Requirements

The educational track for a sports medicine physician is much more intensive and can take anywhere from 12 to 13 years to complete. From start to finish, the program usually includes:

  • Undergraduate degree: 4 years
  • Medical school: 4 years
  • MD/DO residency: 3 years
  • Sports medicine fellowship: 1 to 2 years

Even non-physician sports medicine specialists require extensive training. A certified athletic trainer (ATC), for example, will gain certification only after completion of a bachelor's or master's degree from an accredited program.

To be certified, candidates must complete a certification exam and demonstrate the capacity to recognize, evaluate, prevent, and provide appropriate treatment of athletic injuries. Emerging areas of sports medicine include advanced diagnostics, rehabilitation technologies, and stem cell therapies to regenerate joint cartilage and skeletal muscle.

A Word From Verywell

The field of sports medicine is growing, and the variety of specialists needed to work with athletes will continue to grow. As research and innovation in sports medicine continue, so too will their areas of application in healthcare practices.

4 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. Department of Labor, Bureau of Labor Statistics. Healthcare occupations.

  2. Hospital for Special Surgery. Sports medicine conditions, prevention and treatments.

  3. American Psychological Association. Sport psychology.

  4. Swansea University. What is sports science?

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