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Seeing a Doctor for Your Sports Injury

If you play a sport, fleeting aches and pains may be a common occurrence. If these aches and pains don’t go away, it is possible that you have an injury. A sports injury doctor may be necessary to properly diagnose and treat your injury. Many sports injuries are small and resolve on their own, but when they linger, it is important to find the right sports medicine resource to help with the healing of your injury. The following information can help you decide when to see a sports doctor.


Choosing a Sports Injury Specialist

A sports injury specialist is a professional who focuses on medical and therapeutic resolution of injuries that result from physical activities and participation in sports. The specialist may be a surgeon, medical doctor, doctor of osteopathy, or another provider who works specifically with people who suffer from athletic injuries. Many athletes say they prefer the expertise an experienced sports injury-focused specialist. For that reason, health care organizations, sports teams, or athletic clubs often share preferred provider names. After contacting any referred specialist, ask the provider about his or her experience in working with athletes.


The most important qualification of a sports injury specialist is his or her experience in treating athletes. According to the “Encyclopedia of Sports Medicine,” sports medicine specialists are not board certified but may hold sports medicine certificates issued by the American Medical Society for Sports Medicine (AMSSM) or the American Osteopathic Academy of Sports Medicine (AOASM) as well as the “Certificate of Added Qualifications in Sports Medicine.” Physicians with a primary board certification from the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS) or the American Osteopathic Association (AOA) may pursue specialties in sports medicine or sports injury rehab.


When to Seek Treatment

When a sports injury occurs, it is important to determine if you need medical care right away. These symptoms usually indicate a doctor’s consult is needed:

  1. Pain is so severe that it’s impossible to put your weight on the hand, foot, or injured part.
  2. The injury looks “deformed,” (not just swollen) when compared to your opposite side.
  3. You cannot move the injury site.
  4. Walking or putting weight on an arm causes significant pain.
  5. Your leg or arm gives way when you attempt to use the injured joint.
  6. Numbness at the injury site or near it.
  7. Red streaks emanating from the injury site.
  8. A previously injured site is injured again.
  9. Pain, swelling, or inflammation (redness) presents at a bony area, such as the foot, elbow, shoulder, hand or knee.
  10. Concerns about how severe the injury is and/or not being able to treat it properly at home.
  11. Loss of conscious when the injury occurred.
  12. Neck pain.
  13. Any constant pain.
  14. Pain that prevents or interrupts sleep.
  15. Muscle spasms, or restricted or locked joints.
  16. Severe bruising.


Insurance Providers

Depending on your health insurance or HMO/PPO, a primary care physician may be the first stop. Although a primary care physician may not have sports medicine experience, he or she can also refer you to a sports injury provider or sports injury rehab therapist. In some instances, a minor acute sprain or strain is treated by the primary care doctor. For instance, if you’ve recently taken up a sport but aren’t yet conditioned for it, acute symptoms may present. But chronic conditions, including tendonitis, herniated disc, dislocations, overuse injuries, stress fractures, growth plate separation, swollen joints that do not heal, muscle injuries, torn cartilage, constant pain, or any condition that requires surgery should result in a referral to a sports injury specialist or orthopedic sports medicine-focused surgeon.


Depending on the type of injury, the primary care doctor may refer you to a podiatrist, physical therapist, orthopedist, chiropractor, massage therapist, or certified athletic trainer. These professionals focus on the musculoskeletal system:


  • Podiatrists often work with athletes, often runners, with foot or ankle injuries. Biomechanical studies help the podiatrist to evaluate the athlete’s gait and foot strike or to make custom orthotics if necessary.
  • Physical therapists (PT) typically focus on treating injuries diagnosed by a clinician. The PT may specialize in orthopedics-sports medicine. Many athletes say that identifying an experienced PT is incredibly valuable because they incorporate training and sports injury rehab principles into an injury recovery plan.
  • Orthopedists work with bone and joint issues. They often specialize in ACL repair, back surgery, and joint replacement.
  • Chiropractors work to relieve pain and pressure placed on a variety of nerves. Because the chiropractor does not prescribe medicines or perform surgery, some athletes ask for the referral to a chiropractor first.
  • Massage therapists sometimes work with chiropractors to treat various musculoskeletal injuries and conditions.
  • Certified Athletic Trainers (ATC) work with athletes and are frequently affiliated with sports teams at schools, colleges, and universities. They may also work at gyms, health clubs, or medical clinics. An ATC may help the athlete to determine potential injuries and, in some cases, the trainer may make necessary referrals to medical specialists.


Of course, the provider you see depends upon the type of injury, treatment preferences, and previous therapies used. Not all sport injury treatments begin with the primary care physician and not all PCPs refer their patients to sports injury specialists. Some athletes routinely work with a sports medicine specialist focused on sports training and athletic performance or nutrition. Finding the best doctor when he or she is needed can be a big challenge, because the specialist who works with sports injuries, athletic performance, and healing is likely to have an exceptionally busy practice. Getting in to see the specialist on an urgent basis may be difficult. For that reason, establishment of relationships with a sports injury doctor may make sense.

At Home Treatment Concepts

If the injury is a simple one, you can use the PRICE method to self-treat:

  • Protect the injured site with immobilizers, splints or braces.
  • Rest for twenty-four to forty-eight hours after the injury occurs to promote healing. Avoid activities that stress the injury site to prevent re-injury.
  • Ice the injury site for up to ninety-six hours after the injury occurs. Do not allow the ice to directly contact the skin. Short ice therapy sessions of no more than twenty minutes are the most effective. Avoid heat to reduce the potential or bruising or swelling.
  • Compression with an ace bandage can help to prevent or limit swelling at the injury site. Wrap the area snugly but not tightly to promote healing circulation to the injury site.
  • Elevate by raising the injured area above the heart when at rest.

Rehabilitation is then essential to healing the injury. The sports injury doctor can prescribe exercises to maintain muscle and ligament strength without causing more injury to the site. Pain-free movement and regular use is the goal and will help to aid rapid rehabilitation after an injury.

Body Knowledge

Most athletes know their own bodies extremely well, and this self-knowledge is essential. Not all soreness, aches, and pains require the athlete to seek out a sports medicine physician or surgeon. If the doctor does not perform extensive diagnostic tests such as an MRI or bone scan, a routine physical exam may not help. If you’ve experienced a problem before, it can make sense to “wait it out.” Then, if the problem does not resolve as it did in the past, making an appointment with the sports injury professional is a good idea.


Sports Nutrition and Injury Avoidance

As you probably know, athletes are constantly in search of better performance and frequently search for providers to support physical performance goals. A sports nutritionist is a crucial ally to many athletes as they seek to effectively fuel workouts and achieve better performance. Many athletes need this assistance to support endurance, strength, competition, or hydration. The development of vitamin and mineral deficiencies are relatively common in athletes. Eating properly for the season or competition can also help the athlete to prevent sports injuries.