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The benefits of a one-on-one exam over a sports physical

Last Modified: April 17, 2022

Sports & Exercise, Family Medicine

wellness vs sport

Sports medicine and sports physicals have been around for years. These pre-participation assessments were organized and administered as mass events for area schools in the past. However, these exam events had two providers questioning if this was the best standard of medicine. Duane Hougendobler, MD, PPG – Pediatrics, and Joseph Mattox, MD, PPG – Sports Medicine, teamed up to pull sports physical exams out of the gymnasiums and get children back into their primary care physician’s office for a proper one-on-one evaluation and wellness exam, along with their sports physical.

Wellness exam

During the first two years of a child’s life, the well-child exam is very robust. We see patients as newborns, then at 2 months, 4 months, and so on until they are 3. At the age of 3, these visits become yearly until they are 18 years old. Every child should be seen by a physician every year, no matter what. Whether they have health issues or not. And when compared to sports physical, a wellness exam is much broader and more comprehensive. It can help address mental illness, well-being, vaccinations, immunizations, lipid tests, family history, and chronic medical issues.

Sports exams

A proper sports physical should be incorporated into the well-child visit and conducted by a pediatrician or family doctor. During this exam, the physician does the same things they would do for any child and then asks additional questions pertaining to the specific sports the child is participating in. The doctor can address any prior injuries and the healing process, including therapy. The exam is the same, but the conversation is a little different.

The problem with the old model

For some time, local schools would hold mass sports physical events. This model was born of the idea that we could get all young athletes to fulfill the Indiana High School Athletic Association (ISHAA) requirements on the same day. Families liked the option because they believed it would cost more to see the doctor and be less convenient. At those events, the sports physical was essentially confirmation that the child had a heart, lungs, etc. That was it.

A major issue with these mass events was that children did not receive immunizations. Often, when we finally did see a child in the office, they were way behind on adolescent immunizations. In addition, it was loud and impersonal. Kids giggled, and the gymnasiums were large and echoed. The setup made it hard to hear and didn’t allow doctors to dig into the psycho-social aspects of care. We didn’t get to ask about how things were going at school, food insecurity, personal safety, etc. Sometimes these sports physicals were the only time that family and child had a touchpoint with healthcare, and in that environment, things like sleep and signs of ADHD, and so on, could not be addressed.

The bottom line is that these were not effective exams. But they fulfilled the requirement. Fortunately, things have changed, and what we pay attention to has improved drastically.

The benefits of a doctor’s visit

There’s been a huge shift away from these mass sports physicals, which has resulted in a higher percentage of in-office visits and vaccinations. These appointments give the physician time to talk about proper sports nutrition and safe ways to improve performance. For example, we know that it’s not good to focus on just one sport. Neglecting to participate in at least two different sports before high school can increase the risk of overuse injuries and hinder the athlete.

Athletes often mention that they can “play through the pain,” but obviously, we don’t want that. We want to get them started with the proper treatment as quickly as possible and follow their progress and healing. If a child is injured while playing sports, the best course of action in most scenarios is to get them in to see their pediatrician or primary care provider. If it’s an emergency, please don’t wait. Immediately call 911 or take your child to the emergency department.

Additionally, detecting mental health issues early on can lead to far better outcomes. A recent study indicated that treating anxiety in adolescents significantly reduced their need for medication during adulthood.

Scheduling a visit

You can schedule an annual exam for your child with their provider online, via phone or through MyChart. If you need help finding a provider, please call (877) PPG-TODAY or (877) 774-8632. 

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