What is a Sports Medicine Physician?

First, a little background on the educational pathway for doctors (physicians) in general. A candidate doctor will attend a medical school, typically for 4 years. They graduate and are then called “doctor,” but their practical knowledge/skill is limited. So, almost every doctor attends a residency program for 3 or more years after medical school. The first year of residency is frequently called an internship. After finishing the residency, the doctor is now a board prepared specialist in the field of your residency (such as pediatrics, orthopedic surgery, emergency medicine, etc). As a board-prepared physician you have the option to pay fees and take a comprehensive exam (sometimes a series of exams) for your speciality board. Pass the exam(s) and you are board certified. Many choose to enter the workforce and care for patients after residency. Some will choose to a fellowship program; one or more years of additional focused study and work in a given field within their specialty to become a sub specialist.

Until recently, much of the sports medicine expertise available here in Durango was with orthopedic surgeons. Orthopedic surgeons receive comprehensive education on the diagnosis and management of bone, joint, muscle, tendon and ligament injuries. Much of the education for orthopedic surgery is focused on surgical techniques and procedures. Some orthopedic surgeons (particularly in more recent years) will also do a fellowship , typically focused on arthroscopic surgery of the shoulder, hip and knee if they have a strong interest in sports medicine.

Orthopedic surgeons are a critical part of the team in treating sports injuries. If you have a complicated fracture, a complete ACL tear, or other surgical injury, only a good orthopedic surgeon can give you the best chance of full recovery.

What if you don’t need bone or joint surgery? What if your problem is a concussion, a breathing problem, or something unrelated to musculskeletal issues? Enter the (medical) Sports Medicine Physician.

For doctors who aren’t surgeons, there is a different educational path to get involved in sports medicine. After completing a residency in one of several fields (pediatrics, internal medicine, family medicine, rehabilitation, or emergency medicine) doctors with strong interest and experience working with athletes can choose to do a 1-2 year fellowship in primary care or non-operative sports medicine. During a sports medicine fellowship, doctors learn about the full range of medical and orthopedic problems that are common in active people, and become experts in evaluation, diagnosis and non-surgical treatment.

As a non-surgical specialist, a medical sports medicine physician can diagnose all types of orthopedic injuries, and provide the full range of treatment for most orthopedic injuries (the perhaps 90% or more that don’t need surgery). Additionally, they are the experts on sports head injuries and can evaluate and treat medical problems, and help develop an athlete’s training plan for their training goals.

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