Sports physicals are an important part of your preseason preparation

For young people who play sports, getting the required annual sports physical seems like a routine task. But it’s every bit as important as any “big game” for keeping athletes healthy and safe, according to Cynthia Webb, M.D., a pediatrician on the medical staff at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital in Plano.

“A sports physical offers your physician a chance to detect possibly life-threatening conditions, such as heart problems, as well as serious conditions, such as uncontrolled asthma or repeated concussions that might preclude safe participation in sports,” Dr. Webb says.

In a typical sports physical (also known as a “pre-participation evaluation,” or PPE) the athlete or his or her parent completes a patient and family health history. The physician reviews the form and performs an exam, checking reflexes and vital signs (pulse and blood pressure) and noting the patient’s height and weight. The physician also looks for signs of joint, bone or neurologic problems.

Dr. Webb, who performs hundreds of PPEs every year, has this advice for young athletes and their parents: take the paperwork seriously. Complete the patient and family history form carefully before you arrive at the doctor’s office.

“That information is the doctor’s biggest clue as to whether there’s something of concern going on,” Dr. Webb says. “Roughly three-quarters of all abnormalities turn up by way of the form.”

Many parents are worried by news reports of instances of sudden cardiac death in young athletes. While those are rare, Dr. Webb says, the health history provides a key prevention tool.

“The questions on the form are designed to ferret out signs of heart problems,” she said.

Questions about family history of heart problems, or about previous instances of sudden dizziness or fainting, can point the physician to the need for additional testing, such as an EKG or echocardiogram.

Dr. Webb cautions that no health history, exam or medical test can rule out every possible problem, but the more thorough the exam and the health history, the better the odds of detecting a problem. She also thinks it’s best to see your regular pediatrician or physician for sports physicals.

“Some schools perform the physicals with the whole team all at once in the gym, and these can be done well as long as full attention is given to the health history,” she said. “But someone who knows your child well is your best choice.”

For her patients, a PPE is also an opportunity to talk to the athlete and his or her family about the importance of hydration, nutrition and getting adequate sleep.

“Sometimes a sport can be the most important thing in the athlete’s life,” she said. “I tell the parents that it’s up to them to help create a healthy balance."

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