Why sports physicals are important – especially after a COVID-19 diagnosis

With league and school sports beginning to resume after a prolonged COVID-prompted off season, many young athletes are heading back to the field again.

Having a sports physical is an important step before getting back into the game – especially after a having COVID-19 symptoms or a diagnosis.

But what exactly is a sports physical and why are they needed? In this Q & A, Dr. Matthew Kornswiet, a sports medicine pediatrician in the CHOC Primary Care Network, answers these questions and more.

Coaches and parents should continue to follow safe return to sports guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and locally, the California Interscholastic Federation and California Department of Public Health.
Does having COVID-19 affect my child’s ability to play sports safely?

If your child had symptoms of or tested positive for COVID-19 at any point, it is important that they see their provider before returning to sports.

Research shows that sometimes after a COVID-19 infection, a patient has a small risk of developing myocarditis (inflammation of the heart) or multisystem inflammatory syndrome in children, also known as MIS-C, an inflammation of multiple areas of the body.

Even if your child had a sports physical recently, it is important that children have another physical exam after a COVID-19 infection before returning to sports.

In some cases, providers may recommend additional tests for your child’s heart or that they see a cardiologist, or heart doctor, for further evaluation. This is to ensure that children are safe to return to sports.

What is a sports physical and why are they important?

A sports physical helps determine whether it’s safe for a child to participate in a sports or athletics. They can also help uncover and treat health problems that might interfere with participation. The provider may also offer tips to help with training and injury prevention.

What should I expect at a sports physical?

A sports physical is divided into two halves: the medical history and the physical exam.

During the medical history portion, the provider will ask key questions about serious illnesses among family members; current or previous medical conditions, such as asthma, epilepsy or diabetes; past injuries; and more.

During the second half of the visit the provider will perform a physical exam. The physical exam will measure the athlete’s vital signs; check the athlete’s heart and lungs; evaluate strength and flexibility; vision; and more.

The provider will also ask questions about the athlete’s mental health, use of drugs, alcohol or dietary supplements, including steroids or other so-called “performance enhancers” and weight-loss supplements.

What happens after the physical?

When the exam is over, the provider will complete and sign a form indicating fitness to participate in the sport, if all is well. In some cases though, the provider may recommend a follow-up exam, additional tests, or specific treatment for medical problems.

Young athletes shouldn’t worry that additional follow-up care means being benched. A sports physical’s ultimate goal is to ensure athletes are safe while playing sports – not to stop them from playing.

Additional follow-up could be as simple as rechecking blood pressure in a few weeks. A referral to a specialist could ultimately help athletic performance, such as in the case of slight knee pain during running that an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist can demystify and treat.

If my child has a sports physical, do they still need a regular physical or well check?

It’s critical that patients of all ages undergo a regular physical every year, whether or not they also have a sports physical. Depending on when your child had their last physical, it can be done at the same visit as the sports physical.

While sports physicals focus on well-being as it relates to athletics, regular physicals are more comprehensive, addressing broader physical and mental health concerns, and helping to ensure patients are up-to-date on vaccinations.

Where can my child get a sports physical?

Families usually have many options for receiving sports physicals. Your child’s physician or a sports medicine physician can provide a sports physical exam.

Remember, your pediatrician knows your child’s medical history thoroughly, can make referrals if needed, and will play a critical role in any ongoing care plans – not to mention, is one of their biggest fans.

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