When should you see a sports medicine doctor about your pain?
If you're regularly active, there may come a time when you experience pain from a sports or exercise injury. Mild muscle soreness after exercise is common and usually goes away after a few days, but pain that is sharp or persistent could be a sign of a more serious injury. Even a minor injury could sideline you for a long time if left untreated. So it's important to know when to see a sports medicine doctor who can evaluate and treat injuries and when you can heal on your own.
This is true whether you're a professional or amateur athlete, a "weekend warrior," or simply someone who enjoys playing sports occasionally. Anyone can get a sports injury.
Types of sports injuries
If you are a regular exerciser or an athlete with a chronic or acute injury, your healthcare provider may suggest a visit with a sports medicine specialist or an orthopedic doctor, depending on the injury. There are two main categories of sports injuries:
- Acute injuries happen suddenly, such as when a person falls or twists an ankle. Sprains and dislocations are examples of acute injuries.
- Chronic injuries typically result from overuse and develop slowly over time. Tendonitis is an example of a chronic condition. Shin splints and stress fractures are also examples of chronic overuse injuries.
Some mild injuries can heal on their own and be treated using the RICE method. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. These mild injuries include golfer's or tennis elbow, shoulder pain from rock climbing, neck or elbow pain from bike riding, or an overuse injury like runner's knee. More serious injuries may need medical attention.
When athletes should see a healthcare provider
If you are an athlete with a chronic or acute injury or someone else with a sports-related injury, you should seek a doctor's care when:
- Your symptoms do not go away after RICE treatment.
- You have an undiagnosed or untreated condition that affects training and performance.
- You have a condition that puts other teammates or competitors at risk.
If you break a bone or develop an overuse injury, you should schedule an appointment with a clinician specializing in orthopedics. Orthopedic providers work with sports medicine doctors and rehabilitation services to get patients the care they need.
For sports injuries, you may need to see a sports medicine specialist. These clinicians rehabilitate athletes and nonathletes after injuries to help restore lost function. They can also treat pulled muscles, concussions, and other injuries active people experience.
The difference between an orthopedic doctor and a sports medicine doctor
Orthopedic specialists and sports medicine doctors address similar issues, but there are key differences.
Orthopedic specialists focus on conditions that affect the musculoskeletal system, which is made up of the body's bones, joints, muscles, nerves, ligaments, and tendons. Musculoskeletal disorders that require surgery are treated by orthopedic specialists. For example, shoulder injuries like rotator cuff tears or superior labrum from anterior to posterior (SLAP) tears require treatment from an orthopedic specialist.
Sports medicine doctors treat sports-related injuries, but most do not perform surgery. Instead, they focus on nonsurgical approaches to help athletes and others with sports injuries recover. They may recommend lifestyle modifications, nutritional counseling, and physical training. Sports medicine doctors have extra training in conditions that affect professional athletes, everyday exercisers, and anyone active in sports.
Other types of healthcare professionals that help treat sports injuries include:
- Physiatrists are board-certified medical doctors who specialize in treating nerve, bone, and muscle conditions that affect movement.
- Physical therapists help people with injuries restore function and improve their ability to move.
Reasons to see a sports medicine doctor
You may want to see a sports medicine specialist if you have any of these sports injuries:
- Ankle sprain
- Cartilage injury
- Exercise-induced asthma
- Heat illness
- Knee and shoulder injury
- Pulled muscle
Your sports medicine doctor can also share guidance on nutrition, exercise, and injury prevention. Check with your healthcare provider to determine if your injury requires the care of a sports medicine doctor or an orthopedic specialist.
Reid Health offers a range of options to help athletes perform their best. Our athletic trainers can prevent injuries and rehabilitate existing injuries.
Visit the Reid Athletic Training Clinic to request an appointment to meet with an athletic trainer or learn more about our services. Our clinic is open Monday through Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m.