Almost any adult looking back to their days of high school athletics will recall the yearly ritual of the pre-participation physical exam. Most physicians feel that the pre-season physical is a crucial part of any sports medicine program. If you or your child participates in organized athletics, it is always a good idea to have a screening exam prior to beginning practice or competition. In fact, the University Interscholastic League (UIL), which governs all public school athletics in Texas, requires a pre-participation physical examination for all incoming seventh and ninth graders.
The pre-season screening serves a number of purposes. First of all, the exam may detect conditions that may predispose the athlete to injury. If the problem is picked up early, often it can be cured, rehabilitated, or compensated for before it becomes a significant problem. Secondly, it is important to identify conditions that limit participation. For example, people who are missing a paired organ (lungs, kidneys, etc.) are usually not allowed to compete in collision or contact sports. Damage to the remaining organ could cause a life-threatening condition.
The pre-participation physical exam is a good time to evaluate the status of old injuries. If a player sustained an injury in the previous year, the doctor can determine if there is anything else that needs to be done prior to beginning the upcoming season.
The screening exam can often pick up conditions that may cause a performance deficit. For example, tight hamstrings can cause a variety of musculoskeletal problems, but might also significantly hinder the performance of a hurdler. If this condition is picked up during the physical, steps can be taken to correct the problem and enhance achievement.
The importance of a complete medical history cannot be overstated. Studies have show that 63-74 percent of all limiting conditions are identified through the medical history. It is therefore crucial that the athlete and his or her parent or guardian take the time to accurately fill out the medical history questionnaire.
Although most family physicians, internists, pediatricians and orthopaedic surgeons offer pre-participation physicals, school districts often set up a time for everyone to receive a physical at the same time. This allows for a convenient way to administer screening exams and facilitates good communication between the player, coach, parent and doctor. If your school district does not have this policy be sure to schedule an appointment with your doctor for a screening exam.
An important point that should be emphasized is that physicians and athletes often have different views of the pre-participation screening exam. Athletes often look at the process as a yearly physical while the doctor sees it as a screening tool. The screening examination is no substitute for a comprehensive yearly check up.
On a legal note, a physician cannot perform a pre-participation examination on a minor without the written consent of the parent or guardian. So, to save yourself some time and frustration, have the paperwork filled out before it’s time for the examination. Finally, the old “better safe than sorry” adage applies. If you have to ask if a physical is necessary, it probably is.