With the school year about to start, many parents need to schedule clearance physicals if their children want to play in league or school sports this fall. But why are they required and what should a parent know?
“The clearance physical is an opportunity for a physician to evaluate an athlete’s physical readiness to play and any risk factors or conditions that might need further evaluation,” says Dr. Christopher Kroner, a UCI Health family medicine physician who specializes in sports medicine.
“Make an appointment at least six weeks out, just in case we find something that needs further evaluation,” he adds.
What physicians look for
The vast majority of these physicals find problems no more serious than the need for glasses or how to wear them in the sport kids are playing. Nevertheless, Kroner says doctors routinely screen for:
Doctors in particular screen for any risk for sudden cardiac death, such as inherited or genetic conditions of the heart or major blood vessels. Usually there isn’t a problem, but occasionally a doctor may detect a heart murmur, which would require an echocardiogram to evaluate.
Once while questioning a teenager, Kroner began to suspect the boy had a heart irregularity.
“We did a stress test and found a rare valve problem,” he says. “We were able to take care of it and get him into his sport.”
Sports physical is more than an exam
Those rare findings underscore the importance of going beyond a basic physical exam and asking prospective athletes how they feel while exercising and exploring their personal and family medical history.
Kroner encourages parents to fill out the health questionnaire from the school or league honestly and thoroughly because those details can be vital to protecting a child’s health.
If the questionnaire is complete, a typical pre-participation clearance shouldn’t take any longer than a normal office visit — about 15 or 20 minutes.
Catching up on health needs
These exams also may be the one of the few times a child is screened by a health professional. It allows doctors a chance to recommend other preventive therapies, such as making sure vaccinations are up to date or providing lifestyle counseling.
Kroner recommends that athletes do two more things to prepare for their sporting activities:
“The important thing to remember is that doctors are not trying to find reasons to hold kids out of play,” Kroner says. “In fact, they are looking for every way that the kids can play safely. If a doctor recommends some other test or consultation before clearance, there is a good reason and, though inconvenient, may end up saving the athlete’s life.”