All physicals are not created equal.
If your teenager is playing a sport, he or she will need a sports physical in addition to the typical annual exam.
“The whole purpose of a sports physical is to identify risk factors that can lead to untimely death, a permanent injury or could impact an athlete’s ability to play at the highest level,” said Dr. Ed Kimlin, chief medical director at MedStar PromptCare. “The biggest thing is to rule out a chance of sudden cardiac death. It’s very rare, but in my mind, that’s why we do sports physicals.”
Examples of medical issues that a sports physical can spot include scoliosis and Marfan syndrome. The latter, while rare, gained publicity last year when former Baylor University basketball star Isaiah Austin was diagnosed with it, destroying his chances to play basketball professionally.
People with the genetic condition have weaker aortas, which supply blood from the heart to the rest of the body.
If a sports physical uncovers evidence of a potential heart problem, the doctor will recommend the student undergo an EKG. But that’s only for those student athletes with a risk, Kimlin said.
“Otherwise, you have to do it for 200,000 kids for every one death,” Kimlin said. “It just becomes absolutely unworkable.”
He recommends parents take their child to the family’s pediatrician, if possible, for an athletic physical. If that doctor doesn’t do them, he or she will be able to recommend a doctor who does.
Be cautious of “rubber stamp” physicals, Kimlin said. And if the doctor raises red flags, listen, no matter how anxious your child is to play—short-term frustration is always better than long-term health problems, he added.
Andy Warner, the assistant director of the Maryland Public Secondary Schools Athletic Association, said Maryland state rules require students participating in school sports to undergo a sports physical before they start playing.
The MPSSAA, which is governed in part by the state Department of Education and local school districts, recommends a pre-participation physical evaluation form developed by the American Academy of Family Physicians, American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine and other medical organizations.
“It’s a health and safety issue,” Warner said.
Not only is it important for students to be checked out by a licensed physician, it gives their coaches and trainers important background information on their athletes’ health, Warner said.
Dr. Holly Benjamin, a professor of sports medicine at the University of Chicago and a member of the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine’s board, said one of the organization’s goals was to promote a universal sports physical form.
Each state, she said, has its own legal requirements regarding school sports, and the board was fine with state-by-state additions to the form, as long as nothing was deleted from it. Benjamin said parents can also use it for younger children who may be playing middle school or club sports.
“Many, many high schools, their forms are inadequate,” said Benjamin, noting some asked only four or five questions about cardiac health, instead of the 15 questions recommended by the American Heart Association.
It’s rare that an athlete is held back from participating in sports, but Benjamin says she recommends that a student athlete get a screening at least six weeks out from the beginning of the season, if possible, to give them enough time to see a specialist or get other treatments.
“It’s an opportunity for athletes to ask questions, too,” Benjamin said.