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Superhero Sports Medicine Team: Managing Injuries, Preventing Harm & Ensuring Athlete Safety

July 07, 2023
People in a stadium with their arms raised cheering.

Not all heroes wear capes — some are simply working behind the scenes to care for everyone from amateur to professional athletes. I’m talking about the sports medicine team.

The purpose of the sports medicine team is to manage emergency and environmental injuries, evaluate and treat orthopedic injuries, and prevent injuries.

On the National Federation of State High School Associations website, an article was posted about the development of the sports medicine team. The authors stated that "these policies and procedures should be utilized in the course of daily operations, events, and practices. The goal of this type of coordinated program is to provide an appropriate level of health care for student-athletes in all sports."

Members can include but are not limited to, athletic trainers, doctors, and physical therapists. Some organizations have various positions on the sports medicine team, which, in some cases, can have up to 20+ team members or as few as two or three.

Here, we’ll define the roles within this essential team and discuss how, together, they manage injuries, prevent harm, and ensure athlete safety.

What is an Athletic Trainer?

An athletic trainer (AT) is a professional health care provider specializing in preventing, evaluating, and treating athletic injuries. Athletic trainers can be found in high schools, colleges, hospitals, and industrial and other settings.

They also monitor the environmental settings of practices and games. Suppose there is a weather alert in the area. In that case, the athletic trainer monitors the situation, notifies the appropriate personnel, and decides to stop the practice or competition to ensure that the athletes are removed from the field safely.

During an athletic trainer's evaluation or treatment of an athlete's injury, the AT may feel that it is necessary to refer the athlete to a sports medicine, orthopedic, or specialist for further evaluation and treatment.

What is an Orthopedic Sports Medicine Physician?

The athletic trainer may feel it necessary to refer their athlete to be seen by an orthopedic surgeon or non-surgical orthopedist. So what is an orthopedic doctor? The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons defined orthopedic doctors as being devoted to preventing, diagnosing, and treating disorders of the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.

The orthopedic physicians will assess and evaluate the injury through a comprehensive clinical assessment as well as utilize imaging such as X-rays, ultrasound, MRIs, or CT scans, when necessary.

In collegiate and professional sporting events, doctors are usually on the sidelines covering the game. You will also see these doctors on the sidelines on Friday nights during high school football games.

What is a Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician?

A primary care sports medicine physician (PCSM) is a doctor who has completed a fellowship in sports medicine and obtained a Certificate of Added Qualifications (CAQ) in sports medicine. The PCSM physician manages a broad spectrum of injuries and ailments affecting athletes, from non-operative orthopedic injuries to sports-related concussions to any general medical and mental health issues that may arise.

These physicians also provide on-field, athletic training rooms and clinical coverage to meet the myriad needs of both competitive and amateur athletes.

What is a Physical Therapist?

A physical therapist (PT) is a health care professional specializing in rehabilitating a person's injuries. Often, an orthopedic doctor or primary care physician will refer the athlete to physical therapy for injury rehabilitation or to assist in correcting any physical imbalance that may have been noted.

The PT will work with the team's Athletic Trainer through regular communication and, at times, co-treatments to best meet the athlete's needs and facilitate a speedy recovery.

Communication is Key for Any Sports Medicine Team

The most essential characteristic of a high-quality sports medicine team is communication.

Communication between the health care professionals, communication with the athlete and parent, communication with the team and performance coaches.

If sports medicine professionals are in communication, then you can rest assured that your athlete is working with a great team.

Source: Lemak, Lawrence, et al. "Development of the Sports Medicine Team.", 20 May 2015