Sports are an important part of many kids’ lives. Kids who play sports or exercise tend to be healthier and get better grades. They are also less likely to suffer from depression or regularly use cigarettes, alcohol or drugs. But it’s important for kids to be safe in the sports or exercise programs they choose.

A sports physical is a medical exam to determine if it is safe for your child to play a particular sport. You may also hear the term “pre-participation physical exam” (PPE) to describe this exam. It is less comprehensive than an annual physical exam with a pediatrician or family practitioner, so it’s important to continue yearly wellness visits. 

A PPE screens your child for potential problems playing a sport. The doctor looks for risk factors in an otherwise healthy child that could cause problems playing a particular sport. For a child with a medical condition, such as asthma, the doctor evaluates whether to change treatment to allow the child to play safely. In either case, the doctor can give your child advice for avoiding injuries and improving athletic performance. This can include guidance on nutrition, rest, proper stretching techniques, and improving endurance.

What does a sports physical cover?

There are two basic parts of a PPE or sports physical. The first is a thorough review of your child’s medical history. The medical history will include questions about your child’s personal medical history, the family medical history, past injuries and surgeries, and current symptoms, allergies and medications. The medical history reveals the vast majority of problems that could put your child at risk when playing sports. So it’s vital to answer the questions honestly.

The second part of a PPE is the physical exam. The doctor will take basic measurements, such as height and weight. But the exam will focus on the heart and lungs, nervous system, and musculoskeletal system. The doctor should talk to your child about performance-enhancing drugs, alcohol and other drugs, and weight-loss supplements. For girls, the doctor may ask questions about the female athlete triad. This syndrome is a combination of disordered eating, irregular periods or no periods, and thinning bones. 

A PPE is not the same as an annual exam. It will not cover broader areas, such as developmental health, wellness, risk factors for diseases, and vaccinations. That’s why it’s important to get an annual physical exam even if your child has had a sports physical. 

When should I schedule a sports physical?

State law defines the requirements for sports physicals or PPEs in public schools. States can also allow local school districts to set their own guidelines. In general, kids will need to start getting sports physicals whenever they begin participating in school-related sports. Even if your state or school does not require a PPE, it is still a good idea to get one before starting a sport. 

Typically, a sports physical is good for one year from the exam date. This means your child only needs one per year regardless of how many sports he or she plays throughout the year. You should schedule a sports physical at least six weeks before the start of the season. This will allow plenty of time to address any issues that arise during the exam. It will also give you and your doctor time to fill out and return all necessary forms to the school. 

How do I find a doctor or healthcare provider?

Your child’s regular doctor can perform a sports physical or PPE. This is how many people get them and it makes sense to see a doctor who knows your child’s history. Your child may also feel more at ease with a familiar doctor. If you don’t have a regular doctor or you can’t get an appointment in time, you could use a community-based clinic. Drug stores often have community clinics on-site that offer basic services, such as a PPE.

Another option is a school physical if it’s available. Typically, these are mass physicals in the gymnasium or other large venue. Your child rotates through stations to complete the exam. For example, your child may start with a nurse taking vital signs, move on to a doctor taking medical histories, and then visit a series of physical exam stations. This approach offers less privacy and may not be as in-depth as an office exam. But you can always see your child’s doctor afterwards.