What Does a Sports Medicine Doctor Do?

If you’ve been injured playing a sport, exercising, tripping over your kids’ toys or engaging in physical activity of any kind, you may benefit from seeing a sports medicine doctor. Although the name may be misleading, sports doctors aren’t just for athletes.

Sports medicine doctors specialize in the prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries associated with physical activity—from osteoarthritis to tendinitis—as well as sports injuries, such as strained hamstrings and shin splints.

What Does a Sports Medicine Doctor Do?

A sports medicine doctor is a primary care doctor who is specially trained to diagnose and treat injuries that are sustained while playing sports and any other type of orthopedic (musculoskeletal) injury.

“A patient who would be a candidate to see me is really anybody who is active and wants to improve their overall health,” says UNC Health sports medicine specialist Lauren Porras, MD. “I think there’s this common misconception that all I do is take care of 18-year-old football players. The majority of my practice tends to be older people who are trying to be active but are limited by pain.”

Sports medicine doctors often serve as a steppingstone between primary care and an orthopedic surgeon.

“We have more experience than a routine primary care physician managing musculoskeletal issues and any sort of metabolic or bone condition, nutrition and other elements that deal with activity,” Dr. Porras says. “And we also have a lot of experience in managing acute injuries, chronic injuries and conditions that don’t require surgery.”

Acute injuries happen suddenly—often while playing sports or exercising. Think of an ankle sprain or a stress fracture. Chronic injuries develop over time, often from overuse—training too hard or too long. An example of a chronic injury is a torn rotator cuff.

Sports medicine doctors will not only treat an injury but also explain how to properly care for an injury while remaining in shape.

If an injury or condition does require surgery, sports medicine doctors have the expertise to identify that quickly and “get the patient to the appropriate surgeon,” Dr. Porras says.

Sports medicine physicians often work in orthopedic practices, and although the goal is to avoid surgery if possible, they know who can best help you if you do need surgery. For example, some orthopedic surgeons specialize in knee replacements, while others may specialize in shoulder surgeries.

Finally, sports medicine doctors understand the tests and imaging that surgeons will need before a surgery, so they can make sure those are completed before you see the surgeon.

“We get all those things taken care of so the patient is not having to wait or go back and forth to have them done before surgery,” Dr. Porras says.

How Are Sports Medicine Doctors Trained?

After medical school, sports medicine physicians do a primary care residency.

“The most common residencies are family medicine, internal medicine, pediatrics or emergency medicine,” Dr. Porras says.

After their residencies, sports medicine physicians complete an accredited fellowship in sports medicine. Then they are certified as primary care sports medicine physicians.

Find a sports medicine doctor near you.