Student Athlete Sports Physical Exam

High school basketball players.
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Nearly all schools and youth sports leagues require that players have a complete sports physical before the season starts. This pre-participation physical exam is an important part of playing sports safely.

Why Is a Sports Physical Required?

The exam can help screen athletes for potential illness or conditions that may limit or restrict their sports activity. It helps make sure that kids who play sports are physically capable of meeting the demands of a sport and don't have any conditions that may be aggravated by intense exercise.

The goal of the sports physical is to help keep sports safe and accessible to every student who wants to play. Parents are reassured by the physical that their child is appropriately developed for the sport. The school or league is assured that the children who play a sport are physically capable of the training and activity required. It may also be a requirement of their liability insurance or recommended by their legal counsel.

The sports physical doesn't typically uncover health problems in kids, but performing a routine history and physical exam is the best way to ensure the safety of a child who plays sports and help avoid potential risks of injury or illness.

What Is Checked During a Sports Physical?

The most common sports physicals include a health history questionnaire that asks about the child's medical history of injury, illness or conditions, such as asthma and ensures that they are being properly managed.

The health history also asks about the following:

  • Emergency contact information
  • Family history of illness
  • Personal history of illness or injury
  • Diagnosed medical conditions
  • History of heart problems
  • Medications
  • Allergies
  • History of head injury
  • Hospitalizations
  • Immunizations
  • For female athletes, the physical asks about menstrual cycle irregularities

The Physical Exam

The physical exam is designed to look for anything unusual including:

  • Heart rhythm and rate (heart murmur)
  • Joint pain or tenderness
  • Curvature of the spine
  • Elevated blood pressure
  • Wheezing
  • Muscle imbalance
  • Vision loss
  • Hearing problems
  • Problems with reflexes

Though it's not standard practice, if there is a health concern a student may require additional tests including:

  • Blood tests
  • Urinalysis
  • EKG or echocardiogram
  • X-ray, MRI, CT scan, or bone scan
  • Muscle strength testing

A team, league, or school sponsoring a sport may also suggest or require pre-concussion testing, such as the ImPACT test. This test is done on a computer, separate from a sports physical, and provides baseline information that can be used for comparison if an athlete later suffers a suspected concussion.

When Are Sports Physical Exams Done?

Sports physicals are usually required 4 to 6 weeks prior to the start of practice. This allows enough time to address any medical conditions that are uncovered so a child can still participate in the sport even if they need to modify their training routine.

The Result of a Sports Physical Exam

In most cases, a child will be cleared to participate in sports appropriate for their age group. If the exam leads to the discovery of a medical condition that wasn't previously detected, you have the benefit of being able to address it immediately. Some families may avoid getting regular screenings, but the requirement of the sports physical ensures their child is up to date on preventative care and early detection of health problems.

The provider can recommend modifications to existing treatment that may be needed for sports participation, such as asthma or allergy medications. The sports physical can help families keep their child active both in a sport and in regular physical activity.

When you are rooting for your child from the sidelines, you know they are in a sport their body can handle safely.

5 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.
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By Elizabeth Quinn, MS
Elizabeth Quinn is an exercise physiologist, sports medicine writer, and fitness consultant for corporate wellness and rehabilitation clinics.