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The difference between a sports physical and an annual physical

How is a sports physical difference from a traditional annual physical? A sports physical (also called a pre-participation physical) and an annual physical are not interchangeable, says Sara Keeley, NP-C MSN RN, a family nurse practitioner at Piedmont QuickCare at Walgreens.

“A sports physical is focused on cardiovascular and musculoskeletal issues that affect participation in sports,” she explains. “It is not meant to replace an annual physical for teens and adolescents.”

Amy E. Warner DNP, FNP-C, ACNS-BC, APP, education program manager at Piedmont QuickCare at Walgreens, says a routine annual wellness visit typically includes developmental evaluations and routine immunizations. These visits are available through Piedmont primary care physicians.

What to expect during a sports physical

“Participants must come to the exam with a parent or guardian,” says Keeley. “Ideally, they will complete their paperwork in advance. This paperwork is included in the confirmation email you receive after you schedule an online appointment. Exams usually take around 20 minutes if paperwork is completed beforehand.”

Every Piedmont QuickCare (PQC) provider follows standards set by the American Academy of Pediatrics, though exams may vary slightly depending on the provider’s approach. Sports physicals include:

  • Medical history review. The sports physical begins with a review of medical history as well as detailed questions of cardiovascular, neurological and musculoskeletal symptoms, says Warner. This history is reviewed with both the student-athlete and their parent/guardian. The medical history is the most important step of the pre-participation physical.

  • Physical exam. This includes checking the patient’s vital signs, weight and height; examination of the eyes, ears, nose and throat; listening to the heart and lungs; checking the abdominal area; and a neurologic and musculoskeletal examination. Male patients who participate in contact sports may also need a brief hernia exam, with the guardian present in the room.

  • Discussion of findings. The final step is discussing any findings and ordering referrals if any findings require such. “An example would be referring to ophthalmology if the child does not meet minimum vision requirements,” explains Warner. “If a new heart murmur is detected, the patient would be referred to cardiology for evaluation. Or if a patient is wheezing and doesn’t have a rescue inhaler, they would need to be referred for evaluation.”

  • Education. Keeley says sports physical providers also include education for student-athletes, whether that’s discussing concussions, hydration or heat acclimation.

Why do children and teens need a sports physical?

“High school athletes account for up to 2 million injuries each year,” says Warner. “The pre-participation physical is valuable to identify potentially life-threatening conditions as well as orthopedic conditions, asthma and substance abuse. For up to 70 percent of students, the pre-participation physical is their only source of a health evaluation.”

For this reason, PQC provides a referral to a primary care provider for all patients without an established medical home. Primary care providers manage chronic conditions, while PQC providers can treat acute, or sudden, episodes of illness, like asthma. Find a Piedmont primary care provider near you.

In the state of Georgia, says Warner, a sports physical is required annually by the Georgia Athletic Association. Other schools and programs – such as community and recreational leagues – follow this standard as well. A sports physical is required before an athlete can try out for a sport.

How much does a sports physical cost?

At Piedmont QuickCare at Walgreens, sports physicals are $38 for patients up to age 18 and $60 for those ages 19 and older. These visits are self-pay and cannot be billed through insurance. Only the annual physical visit is an insurance benefit.

“Piedmont QuickCare at Walgreens also offers many catch-up immunizations if there is a routine vaccine that has been delayed or missed for whatever reason,” adds Warner.

Sports physicals aren’t a formality

The purpose of the pre-participation examination is not to disqualify or exclude an athlete from competition, says Warner. Instead, the pre-participation physical is intended to help maintain the health and safety of the student-athlete in both training and competition.

“We really do have the student-athlete’s best interests in mind,” adds Keeley. “For some of our really busy student-athletes, the preparticipation physical can become another item on their checklist and they may take it for granted that they are healthy. As providers, we take these physicals seriously and are paying attention; they aren’t just a formality. We want patients to be safe out there on the court or field.”

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