What Is Sports Medicine? It’s For More Than Athletes

We’re all active in some way – that’s why anyone can cause injuries to joints, ligaments and bones.

The expertise of sports medicine specialists can be helpful, whether your sport is football, basketball, gardening or walking.

Sports medicine experts Jonathan BuchananMD, sports medicine physician and Brandon Fites, MD, sports medicine surgeon with Avera Orthopedics, answer common questions about how this specialty can help everyone.

What is sports medicine?

It’s a medical specialty that focuses on prevention, diagnosis and treatment of injuries and conditions associated with physical activity. Some examples include osteoarthritis, tendinitis, sprains and strains, as well as fractures, dislocations, rotator cuff injuries, shin splints, ACL tears and more.

Is sports medicine just for athletes?

No, it’s for everyone, because everyone wants to have pain-free movement for the activities they enjoy.

“Everyone is an athlete on a certain level, whether it’s a pastime or active job – or walking in the mall,” Buchanan said. “Our focus in sports med is helping you get back to something that brings you joy, no matter what it is.”

What’s the difference between orthopedics and sports medicine?

Orthopedic physicians spend five years after medical school focusing time on this specialty. They learn how to treat hand, joint and spinal injuries, as well as many other subspecialties under orthopedics.

Sports medicine providers spend another year of training, usually at a university, where they focus on sports-related injuries. “We have more experience in sports-related injuries, as well as treatments,” Fites said. Sports medicine can also be divided between orthopedic sports medicine – which surgeons like Fites practice – and primary care sports medicine.

“Non-surgical needs of athletes are where I focus my practice,” Buchanan said. “No two athletes or injuries are the same – that’s why we have many providers who can help, no matter what you do.”

How are injuries and conditions diagnosed?

No one part of the human body works alone. Finding those connections – and possible weaknesses – is part of the expertise offered in sports medicine.

The process begins with a biomedical that may include a physical exam and questions about your injury or how your pain developed or evolved.

Depending on the type and severity of the injury or condition, diagnostic imaging may involve X-rays, CT and MRI scans, ultrasound and more.

Will I have to have surgery?

That depends again on the type and severity of the injury.

Patients may benefit from non-surgical approaches like bracing and physical therapy. Injections, including those which use steroids, plasma-rich platelets or artificial joint fluids, have another option.

“We use a wide range of procedures that are short of surgery, but in some cases, there are no non-operative solutions,” Fites said “A torn rotator cuff is a good example.”

Pre-surgery steps might include stem-cell injections in the areas that cause a patient pain. Cadaver cartilage and bone can sometimes be used to relieve issues, too.

Fites and Buchanan both said many more techniques used today are minimally invasive. Using small holes and arthroscopic technology, Fites might repair an ACL or meniscus tear without a large incision.

Ultrasound-guided injections in nerves, ligaments, tendons and joints are other minimally invasive approaches, Buchanan said.

How do sports medicine specialists help for long-term recovery?

Both sports medicine specialists remind patients that a treatment is a starting point – not the finish. “We’re trained to improve biomechanics and work with the individual to find the source of pain, not just put a short-term fix in place,” Buchanan said.

Having a sports-medicine expert guide your rehab can help reduce the likelihood of recurrence. “We can guide the post-procedure steps to help you reduce pain and regain strength,” Fites said.

Do I need a referral?

When you have an injury related to your joints, muscles or bones, you can see an orthopedic specialist straight away – you don’t need a referral.

“One role we play is giving people a bit of a reality check on their activity level – and we can help them overcome setbacks,” Buchanan said. “Sports medicine focuses on reducing pain and overcoming injuries.”


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