Everything Parents Need To Know About Sports Physicals

As summer winds down, parents across the Bay Area are starting back-to-school preparations, including physicals for children who will be playing sports this fall.  Sports physicals are an important way of screening for underlying health issues that could be worsened by increased physical activity. Here’s everything you need to know about this important exam.

1)  Sports physicals are different from routine pediatric physicals.

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that all children have routine physical exams at regular intervals during childhood.  These physicals are typically performed every few months in the first two years of life, and every year after that. Routine physical exams are a time to update vaccinations, measure developmental milestones, screen for health issues, and discuss preventive health measures like dental care, seatbelts, gun safety and healthy eating.  

Sports physicals, on the other hand, are abbreviated exams performed for the sole purpose of screening for underlying health issues that could be worsened by physical exertion.

2)  Sports physicals begin with vital signs.

All sports physicals begin with measuring height, weight, blood pressure, heart rate and oxygen saturation.  These vital signs can help your pediatrician detect potential issues with nutrition, development, and cardiopulmonary diseases.

3)  Sports physicals can prevent sudden death in young athletes.

While it’s rare, sudden death does happen in young athletes due to undetected heart conditions.  During a sports physical, your pediatrician will listen carefully to your child’s heart to check for murmurs that indicate an abnormality.  Children who have murmurs or other abnormal findings on their cardiac exam are sent for additional screening before they’re cleared to participate in sports, since physical exertion can cause a dangerous strain on a defective heart.

4)  Sports physicals will optimize treatment of chronic health issues.

During your child’s sports physical, your pediatrician will ask about chronic health conditions and any medications your child takes on a regular basis.  It’s an opportunity to discuss health conditions that could be exacerbated by physical activity (like asthma), and develop a plan to make sure your child is using their medication appropriately to prevent any complications.

5)  Sports physicals evaluate musculoskeletal health.

During a sports physical, clinicians will examine your child’s spine and joints to make sure that any previous injuries have healed appropriately, and to ensure there aren’t any underlying joint issues that could be worsened by physical activity.  

For young athletes with healthy joints, the sports physical is an opportunity to establish a baseline exam so that if they do sustain an injury, the clinician can compare the injured joint function to the range of motion and strength the patient had before the injury.


If your child needs a sports physical, make an appointment with their pediatrician as soon as possible!  For same-day illness and injury care, Golden Gate Urgent Care is here seven days a week, with six convenient Bay Area locations.  Make an appointment online or simply walk in to get the care you and your family need.

Sarah Thebarge MMSc, PA-C Sarah Thebarge earned her physician assistant degree at Yale School of Medicine, and then studied journalism at Columbia School of Journalism. She has been a physician assistant and a freelance journalist since 2004. In addition to caring for patients at Golden Gate Urgent Care, Sarah frequently volunteers her medical skills in the developing world. Her writing has appeared in Huffington Post, USA Today and National Geographic, and her blog was featured on MSNBC.com. She is the author of the memoir The Invisible Girls and the upcoming book WELL: Healing our Beautiful, Broken World from a Hospital in West Africa. She currently lives in the Mission District of San Francisco.

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