What is Sports Medicine?

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Sports medicine, also known as sports and exercise medicine (SEM), is a branch of medicine that deals with physical fitness and the treatment and prevention of injuries related to sports and exercise. The goal of sports medicine is to help people engage in exercise safely and effectively in order to achieve their training goals.

Sports medicine specialists treat a wide range of 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, biomechanicssports 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.

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 title of "sports medicine specialist" 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. Rather, it implies additional training focused on the medical aspects of sports and exercise after foundational certification has first been achieved. Non-physician professionals involved in sports medicine include:

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

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-medical sports medicine salaries ranged from $46,630 for a certified athletic trainer to $59,410 for a nutritionist. Physical therapists, who require an advanced degree, earned $86,850 on average.1

Sports Medicine Physicians

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

Most sports medicine physicians are first certified in family practice, emergency medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, or orthopedics before embarking on a two-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, including:

  • Concussion and other head injuries
  • Chronic or acute illnesses (such as asthma, diabetes, or hypertension)
  • Nutrition, supplements, ergogenic aids, and performance issues
  • Injury prevention
  • "Return to play" decisions in sick or injured athletes

Generally speaking, sports medicine physicians will tend to earn higher incomes than their non-specialist counterparts.

According to the 2010 MGMA Physician and Compensation Production Survey, orthopedic surgeons specializing in sports medicine made over $100,000 more per year than general orthopedic surgeons.2

Sports Psychologists

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

Because athletes face unique stresses, a sports psychologist can help regulate anxiety and improve focus in a way that is specific to their sport. They will use a variety of psychology tools and skills (including psychotherapy, stress management, and goal-setting) to help athletes maintain a strong emotional balance during competition or recovery from a severe sports injury.

According to the American Psychological Association, sports psychologists can make anywhere from $60,000 to $80,000 per year, with top earners achieving incomes in excess of $100,000.3

Sports Science Specialists

Sports science, also referred to as exercise science, is the focused study of the principles 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. Only 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 a variety of other sports-related fields.

For a sports medicine physician, the educational track 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 (such as the SCAT3 sports concussion assessment tool used by the National Football Association), rehabilitation technologies (such a platelet-rich plasma therapy and microcurrent wound dressing), and the stem cell therapies to regenerate joint cartilage and skeletal muscle.

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