The Basics on Back-to-School Physicals

Henry Ford Health System's Dr. Hilda Ferrarer-Blair discusses the difference between annual exams and sports physicals.

It’s that time of year again: Back-to-school. If your child attends a Michigan school, the chances are very good that the school will ask you to provide a copy of your child’s annual physical.

Parents may be confused by the terms “annual exam” and “sports physical.” The type of exam needed may vary according to your child’s school requirements.

“An annual exam is more comprehensive and addresses all health concerns, such as diet, weight, school performance, drugs, alcohol or any other concerns parents may have.” says Dr. Hilda Ferrarer-Blair, who specializes in family medicine at Henry Ford Medical Center–Novi. “A sports physical is a more limited exam. We focus on things that look at a person’s ability to play a sport. We generally do not address health concerns on a broader scale. ”

Dr. Ferrarer-Blair points out that during a sports exam the doctor concentrates mainly on specific areas, which is different than doing a complete physical exam.

“We focus on a person’s ability to play sports, such as muscles, joints, breathing and heart symptoms, based on history and exam,” she says.

Michigan school districts require that a completed, current physical must be on file with the school before your child can participate in sports. Also, many schools now require physical exams prior to attending field trips, particularly if the trip takes the class out of town or overnight stays are involved.

While schools may accept either physical, Dr. Ferrarer-Blair recommends a comprehensive physical exam.

“If able, it is better to do a complete full physical instead of a sport physical because the child’s wellness from all aspects is addressed,” she says. It also allows the patient and doctor to start building a relationship that hopefully will last a lifetime.

A sports physical allows a physician to identify any conditions that might keep the athlete out of the game or affect performance.

“Certain injuries may limit ability to play, but more commonly it is breathing or cardiac issues that will limit the child,” Dr. Ferrarer-Blair says.

Each year, tragic news stories appear regarding the sudden death of athletes during sporting events, prompting some parents to request extensive cardiac workups prior to participation in sports. This may not be necessary.

“This really is a case-by-case situation,” says Dr. Ferrarer-Blair. “We hear about the cases where someone died; this is tragic but not the norm. This is why it is important to get the physical where we do a more in-depth interview and can address risk factors and symptoms related to heart conditions.”

Concussions have also been in the news lately and are another reason for parents to take their child in for an annual exam. Your doctor will then have information on file about your child’s normal functioning should any head injury occur.

“Physicals do offer a baseline from a neurological stand point,” Dr. Ferrarer-Blair says.

Dr. Ferrarer-Blair encourages parents to make sure that physicals are done on a regular basis: “It is important to do them yearly and follow up with new symptoms or complaints their children may have. Don’t let them go. Address them quickly.”

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Hilda Ferrarer-Blair or another Henry Ford physician, log on to or call 800-HENRYFORD (800-436-7936).

This post was originally published in 2014 and is updated regularly. 


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