Sports Medicine Careers

Sports medicine includes various healthcare professionals focused on injury prevention and treatment among athletes and active people of all ages and abilities. Athletes look to sports medicine professionals for guidance regarding training techniques, injury prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of sports-related problems. Sports medicine professionals also treat some workplace injuries due to the similarity to sports injuries. 

Caring for an athlete requires a team effort from many individuals with a wide range of expertise and backgrounds. The following are general descriptions of positions in sports medicine.

Physicians in Sports Medicine

Team Physician

The team physician is the athlete's advocate in all health-related matters, overseeing and coordinating medical care. Injury prevention is the primary goal, but when injuries occur, the team physician evaluates the athlete to determine the proper diagnosis and treatment. Their duties include, but are not limited to the following responsibilities:

  • Pre-participation physical examinations
  • Injury prevention, assessment, and management
  • Return to play decisions for the injured athlete during the season
  • Medical coverage of athletic events
  • Strength training and conditioning
  • Substance abuse
  • Special populations (i.e., youth, elderly, disabled)
  • Educating and counseling coaches, administrators and family members on sports-related medical issues

At times, team physicians rely on the expertise of sports medicine physicians that fall into two categories, the orthopaedic surgeon and primary care physician. These groups complement each other by working together to treat common athletic problems, including:

  • Acute injuries such as fractures, ligament tears and cartilage damage
  • Chronic overuse conditions such as tendonitis, stress fracture and bursitis
  • Mild traumatic brain injury (concussion)
  • Injuries to the spine

Orthopaedic Surgeon

Orthopaedic surgeons are physicians specially trained to diagnose and treat musculoskeletal problems, devoting much of their efforts to helping athletes recover with non-surgical measures. After carefully examining the injured athlete, the orthopaedist may order and interpret tests such as x-rays, bone scans, or MRIs. Treatment may involve medication, physical therapy, or in some cases, surgery. All orthopaedic surgeons have completed an undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, and a five-year residency. In addition, many team orthopaedists have completed an additional year of fellowship training explicitly devoted to sports medicine.

Primary Care Physicians

Primary care physicians evaluate and treat the non-operative medical problems of athletes. Examples of treatment include heat illness, exercise-induced asthma, concussion, minor ligament sprains, muscle strains, and eating disorders. Most primary care physicians have training in diagnosing sports-related musculoskeletal problems. These physicians have residency training in family practice, internal medicine, emergency medicine, physical medicine, rehabilitation, and pediatrics and choose to obtain additional training in sports medicine. These professionals have completed an undergraduate degree, four years of medical school, and at least three years of residency. In addition, many have obtained additional experience through a one-to-two-year fellowship in sports medicine.

Allied Athlete Healthcare

Physician Assistant

A physician assistant requires an undergraduate baccalaureate degree with proven competence in scientific coursework and direct patient care experiences, such as working as an emergency medical technician or patient care technician. The full-time curriculum lasts two to three years, consisting of classroom (preclinical) work in basic medical sciences, followed by clinical rotations in all areas of medicine under the guidance of a physician preceptor. Following this formal curriculum, certification is required as a prerequisite to practice in the individual's chosen field of medicine. A physician assistant pursuing a career in sports medicine works with a physician or surgeon specializing in this field. Certified physician assistants must demonstrate continued competency via mandatory continuing education every two years and recertification every six years.

Physical Therapist

Many teams employ physical therapists to rehabilitate athletes recovering from injuries or medical illnesses that result from neuromusculoskeletal disabilities. They work in hospitals, clinics, outpatient departments, private offices, and home care programs, usually under the direction of a physician. Some physical therapy programs offer four-year undergraduate degrees, while others require a bachelor's degree followed by a master's degree in physical therapy. An internship is generally part of the education program.

Certified Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers are involved with injury prevention through the implementation of strength and conditioning programs. They administer rehabilitation exercise regimens and apply therapeutic modalities to enhance the healing process. They also have expertise in a brace and orthotic use to prevent injury or allow the athlete to compete with an injury safely. A certified athletic trainer requires a four-year bachelor's or master's degree with significant additional time spent covering athletic events to gain practical experience.

Nutritionist

The importance of nutrition is critical to an athlete's optimum performance. The nutritionist usually completes a four-year undergraduate curriculum in food sciences, though advanced degrees are also available.

Sports Psychologist

A sports psychologist is often instrumental in helping athletes cope with sports injuries, and in some cases, the need to discontinue participation due to health-related issues. A person entering this field will generally complete an undergraduate degree in psychology and progress to a master's degree and ultimately a doctorate in psychology with specialized training in sports psychology.

Coach

Coaches teach athletes how to compete using the appropriate techniques to improve performance and prevent injury. Most coaches will be educated on first aid and injury prevention while also having a good deal of practical experience in the care of injuries related to their sport. In younger age groups, the coach is frequently the trainer and responsible for first aid, protective devices, and equipment. Coaches of collegiate and professional teams have had long apprenticeships in their field. The number of years that it takes to arrive at this level varies widely.

Indirect Care of Athletes

Exercise Physiologist

Physiology is the study of the functions of the human body and how physiological systems respond to exercise. Research in exercise science has been used to improve athletic performance and protect an athlete's health. A person who enters this field will complete a bachelor of arts or a bachelor of science degree in either biological or biochemical sciences or physical education and may progress to a master's degree or even a Ph.D. in exercise science.

Biomechanical Engineer

A biomedical engineer can be involved in designing safer, more functional equipment and playing surfaces, joint braces to enable athletic performance while preventing injury during the rehabilitation process, or surgical instruments and implants to aid orthopaedic surgeons in treating musculoskeletal injuries. A biomedical engineer completes a four-year undergraduate degree and may proceed to a master's degree or a Ph.D.

Epidemiologist

An epidemiologist studies the incidence, prevalence, and control of disease or injury in populations. The epidemiologist works hand-in-hand with other physicians or researchers on clinical or biological studies to track disease or injury trends through mathematical models and computational statistics, playing a pivotal role in formulating and implementing public health policy. An epidemiologist completes a four-year undergraduate degree and typically a master's degree or a Ph.D.

Pathways to a Career in Sports Medicine 

If you are interested in pursuing a sports medicine career, the following steps might help make your decision easier, especially during high school and college:

  • Take classes in first aid, anatomy and physiology
  • Participate as a student trainer for the school's athletic department
  • Seek out sports medicine professionals in your area and spend time shadowing
  • Participate in sports medicine research
  • Attend sports medicine related conferences or meetings
  • Volunteer to assist with coverage of local athletic events

American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

The American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) is a professional association for nearly 4,000 orthopaedic sports medicine professionals.

For 50 years, we have supported orthopaedic sports medicine professionals in their efforts to prevent and treat musculoskeletal injuries occurring in competitive and recreational athletes. We provide education, best practices, and a professional community to our members to advance their careers and the profession as a whole.