You don't have to be an athlete to see a sport doctor

Anyone who is active can benefit from these often overlooked-but widely accessible-specialized physicians.

Contrary to popular belief, highly trained sports physicians do not work exclusively with elite athletes. In fact, if you're active in any way, you'll want to get one on speed dial after an initial referral by a physiotherapist, chiropractor or family doctor.

"Sport medicine physicians have specialized training and skills which allows us to treat patients of all ages and activity levels," said Connie Lebrun, a sports physician at Glen Sather Sports Medicine Clinic and professor in the University of Alberta's Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry.

Since sport and exercise medicine became a formal designation by the Canadian College of Family Physicians in 2015, more than eight sports medicine physicians at the Glen Sather Clinic have added the certificate to their credentials.

"We are busier than ever," said clinic director and sport physician Terry De Freitas. "We see about 1,000 patients a month, ranging in age from seven to 85, for activity-related injury. That's up about 30 per cent over the last two years."

She attributes the increase to the new designation, which boosted awareness among referring practitioners, such as family doctors, orthopedic surgeons and physiotherapists.

Until the new competence was added, sport doctors in Canada could only achieve special recognition through a diploma examination administered by their self-governing body, the Canadian Academy of Sport and Exercise Medicine. Sport physicians will likely now seek both designations, added Lebrun.

Why see a sports physician?

Using a sport physician can speed up access to timely tests and effective treatment of a range of injuries or illnesses, said De Freitas. "We're trained and specialized in a broad array of areas beyond sports-specific needs." Here are just a few examples.

Acute injury

Rotator cuff in your shoulder giving you problems on the tennis court? Back pain impeding your golf game? Healing a broken ankle keeping you from the treadmill? Anyone who is active and suffering an injury can see a sport physician to assist with diagnosis, treatment and recovery, said Lebrun.

Generally speaking, sport physicians fill the gap for patients with ailments requiring co-ordinated care of medications and exercise that can be difficult to achieve for an isolated family physician or community physiotherapist.

A typical sport physician visit includes a full musculoskeletal assessment, examination of the injury, possibly ordering of diagnostic imaging and a treatment plan, which may include physical therapy, exercise modification, bracing, setting minor fractures and dislocated joints at sporting events, injections and more.

Chronic diseases (like osteoarthritis and diabetes)

"We're trained to treat chronic disease states from osteoarthritis to diabetes and the role of physical activity in recovery and prevention," said Lebrun.

In fact, sport physicians are playing major roles in chronic disease treatment. A study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine showed that consulting with a sports physician for osteoarthritis of the knee can reduce the need for a total knee replacement by up to 50 per cent.

Sports physicians are helping with exercise prescriptions for people with diabetes.

"There wasn't a group taking on prescribing exercise for prevention of chronic disease until physicians trained in sport and exercise medicine," added Lebrun.

Activity abroad

Doing a triathlon in a foreign country? Planning a yoga retreat in the tropics? A sports physician can advise you on environmental and travel issues, immunizations and vaccinations.

"We're savvy on travel medicine because we need to be prepared to travel globally with athletes," explained Lebrun, who was the chief doctor for Team Canada at the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.


Not only are sport physicians trained in the triage or emergency care of serious injuries, they are increasingly relied on to manage prolonged concussion symptoms, said De Freitas.

"Our Complex Concussion Clinic at the Glen Sather helps with return to learn and play and management of symptoms that continue beyond six months."

New mature sport enthusiasts

Add a large baby-boomer population in Canada and increasing awareness of the need for activity with age, and you get a lot more injuries in the 50-plus age category, said De Freitas.

"Older Canadians are taking up sports-we've seen a lot of triathletes after the age of 50, and rowers and cyclists, too-that they are not necessarily prepared for."

If you think you might need a sport physician, ask your family doctor, physiotherapist or chiropractor for a referral, said De Freitas.