Health Topics

Sports Physicals: The Basics

Most teens who participate in sports are anxious to get in the game. For their safety, however, many schools require a sports physical, also called a pre-participation exam (PPE), before an athlete is cleared to play. In the United States, millions of athletes — including teens — undergo sports physicals before they can begin competing.

Why Are Sports Physicals Necessary?

Sports physicals are intended to determine if an athlete is healthy enough to participate in sports, and to help minimize the risk of sports-related injuries. Athletes are seeking medical clearance so they can train and compete safely.

The physical is designed to identify any high-risk disorder or condition that might affect an athlete's ability to play. The exam might also help determine the athlete's safe level of activity, which can have an impact on performance. If an existing injury or potential problem is identified during the sports exam, action can be taken to avoid future problems and to rehabilitate an existing injury.

The extent of the physical varies among doctors, but the goals of the exam are generally the same. Goals of a physical examination include assessing:

  • The athlete's general health.
  • The athlete's current fitness level.
  • Any existing injuries.
  • Any condition that might increase the athlete's risk of injury.
  • The athlete's level of physical maturity.

When Are Physicals Completed?

There is no hard and fast rule about when an athlete should have a participation physical, but six weeks before the start of the sport season is often recommended. This timing provides an opportunity to rehabilitate an existing injury or improve conditioning prior to participation in the activity. Proper conditioning is important because it can help prevent future injuries. If the timing of the physical is too near the start of the season, there might not be time for an athlete to address any condition or injury, and the athlete might not be cleared to play.

In some cases, if there is not enough time to get healthy, an athlete might have to sit out part of the season.

Who Conducts Sports Physicals?

The athlete's personal doctor might perform the exam. In some cases, the school will set aside time for a doctor or doctors to conduct sports physicals on site. In some cases, a physician's assistant or athletic trainer will also assist with the exams.

Physical exams completed by the athlete's personal doctor are most likely to be complete exams, while exams offered by the school are more limited and not a substitute for an annual exam with the athlete's doctor.