Young athletes benefit from thorough sports physicals
By CATHY DYSON
As a pediatrician, Amy Cochran admits she’s biased about athletic physicals, the annual checkups that middle- and high-school students need in order to play sports.
She believes pediatricians are best-suited for the task because they’ve been taking care of the students since birth, and they know the kids’ family histories.
Students can get their physical forms completed at mass screening events or walk-in clinics, where doctors they’ve never met will record their height and weight, test their vision and fill out other required information about allergies, illnesses and medications taken.
But pediatricians who perform sports physicals also will screen for high cholesterol and diabetes, measure how the young athlete is growing and developing and talk about risks ranging from alcohol and drug use to sexual activity and texting while driving.
“Sometimes, for healthy kids, this may be the only time we see them, so we try to get in a lot during the appointment,” said Cochran, who’s with Rappahannock Pediatric Associates in Fredericksburg.
Summer is prime time for sports physicals for students in grades seven through 12 because they can’t play on teams next school year without them. The checkups are good from May 1 of one year to June 30 of the next and are mandatory in Virginia—and most other states—for those who want to compete against other schools.
The National Federation of State High School Associations endorses the exams as a way to identify students who may be at risk for health problems while playing sports.
Walk-in clinics typically offer specials on sports physicals during summer months, and schools sometimes will arrange a “sports physical night” before the school year ends.
Cochran and others worry that parents may see the annual sports physical as the only medical attention their growing children need. That’s not the case, said Jerold Stirling, a pediatrician at Loyola University Health System in Chicago.
“The sports physical required by schools and sports leagues just skims the surface and doesn’t dive deep enough into the real issues that impact teen’s health,” Stirling said in an April interview with newswise.com. “Many young athletes don’t get the care they need. It’s just assumed that they are healthy because all the boxes on the sports physical have been checked off, and that can be dangerous.”
ANNUAL CHECKUPS RECOMMENDED
Cochran stressed that middle- and high-schoolers should have annual checkups, just as they did when they were preschoolers and elementary students and got required immunizations.
“We should be seeing you once a year, even if you’re not in sports,” she said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees. It recommends that all young people, up to age 21, get an annual evaluation by their pediatrician.
“That’s really the only way to know with any of us, quite frankly, if there’s anything going on,” said Dr. Charles Amory at Chancellor Pediatrics about yearly checkups. “That’s applicable if it’s an infant, adolescent or adult.”
Having said that, Amory added that “any competent physician can do a sports physical” and fill out the required forms for those who want to be in sports, go to Scout camps or attend college.
“There’s a bunch of different ‘well visits,’ if you will, that you can do,” he said. “It depends on which organization is requesting it and what they actually want.”
Holly Adamic, a parent of two in Stafford County, said she prefers seeing Cochran, the children’s pediatrician, for annual checkups because the visits go beyond the physical aspects.
“She asks a lot of questions about how they’re doing in school to see if there are any problems there,” Adamic said. “It’s not just the physical part, it’s the mental, too.”
‘THE BASIC SPORTS STUFF’
When schools host a night for sports physicals, officials invite a cadre of medical people—doctors, nurse practitioners and physicians assistants—who volunteer their time and set up various stations in gyms or classrooms.
Students move from one station to the next as doctors test their reflexes, listen to their heartbeats and check ears, noses, throats and lungs.
“It is what it is. It’s the basic sports stuff,” said Brian Collier, an assistant principal at Colonial Forge High School in Stafford. “We’re not saying it’s the same as what you’re getting with your regular doctor.”
Colonial Forge has become the only Stafford school to offer the event, and “it’s a well-oiled machine,” said Michael Justice, the county’s coordinator for physical education.
The school events provide an affordable, convenient solution for busy parents, said Collier, as well as Kevin Race, the athletic director at Spotsylvania Middle School who arranges the physicals at his school.
“Ours was $10,” Collier said. “Where are you gonna find a $10 physical that hits all the basics? If you don’t have insurance, that gives you one physical a year, and that’s a good thing.”
Colonial Forge provided physicals for 371 students, while Spotsylvania Middle ran 207 students through its stations in three hours, Race said. He set up stations in separate classrooms to provide more privacy.
Spotsylvania Middle charged $15 per physical, and the money went to school sports programs. James Monroe High School worked with Mary Washington Healthcare to provide free sports physicals on June 28. Participants had to call ahead for an appointment.
INJURIES AT ALL AGES
Julie Weber of Spotsylvania County has four children, ages 10 to 16. Two are active in sports and a third does various forms of dance, which doesn’t require annual physicals even though it involves as much movement and exertion as sports.
She agrees that young people need annual checkups to make sure they’re healthy and progressing normally. She takes hers to the pediatrician every 12 to 18 months.
But Weber believes people have gotten so paranoid from news stories about extreme allergies and illnesses that schools have put mandatory requirements in place in an attempt to protect themselves from liability.
That may be the case, but youngsters are starting sports earlier and playing on teams throughout the year. If they’re involved in contact sports, such as football, or those prone to injury, such as gymnastics, they need the annual once-overs to make sure they don’t have a lingering problem, Cochran said.
“Some kids are constantly doing a sport, and their body doesn’t have a chance to rest,” Cochran said. “It’s important for parents to know kids can have an injury, even at a young age.”
Ideally, sports physicals should be scheduled six weeks before the activity begins, Cochan said. That gives time for young athletes who do have sprained ankles or other problems to get rehab or therapy before the new season begins.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425