Why Do Kids Need Sports Physicals?

With back-to-school season already here, and school sports starting up, too, here's what parents need to know about these check-ups and sports health.

August is a busy time for parents. Not only are mom and dad trying to squeeze the last dregs of family fun out of the summer season, they’re also preparing for back-to-school in September.

On the to-do list for many, right along with buying notebooks, backpacks and pencils? Scheduling a physical exam, so your teen can play sports at school. Dr. Richard Humes, chief of cardiology at Children’s Hospital of Michigan, sheds some light on sports physicals, the importance of regular health checkups and heart health, too.

What is a sports physical?

A sports physical, also known as a pre-participation physical examination, is done to ensure kids are in good enough health to participate in school athletics. The form, which can be found on the Michigan High School Athletic Association website, asks questions about family history, heart health, bones and joints, asthma and more.

Sports physicals aren’t required in Michigan for children of all ages. Instead, only your high school-age athlete has to have one of these physicals done before participating in sports, per MHSAA.

“Before that, there isn’t really a great need for that from an official standpoint,” Humes explains.

But, kids and teens should have physical exams with their pediatrician regularly “as part of normal care,” Humes notes, which should answer a lot of the pre-participation health questions.

Talking health, hearts and history

Over the years, the questions asked on the sports physical form required for high schoolers have changed, transitioning from inquiries about communicable diseases to a new form developed in 2009 that focuses on previous injuries, family health history and exercise-induced conditions.

In regards to cardiovascular wellbeing prior to sports participation, some parents may have heard of sudden cardiac death – and have concerns. “When a kid dies, particularly a kid on the athletic field, it makes the front page of the paper and so it gets people’s attention and it scares parents – and you know, rightfully so.” But rest assured: “it really doesn’t happen very often,” he assures.

Still, with concern for overall health and safety, the American Heart Association recommends screening for the risk, looking for things like heart murmurs, chest pain, unexplained fainting or near-fainting and high blood pressure. Plus, it’s important to record family history of any heart conditions. These questions, the AHA notes, can help to reduce the risk of sudden cardiac death among young athletes.

Know, too, that even if it’s found your child is a risk for sudden cardiac arrest, that doesn’t mean all sports are out of the question. For example, there are options like golf instead of basketball, Humes says.

What should a parent be mindful of in regards to the heart? “One is exertional chest pain.” That might be cause to call the cardiologist.

Still, Humes says it’s important to note that chest pain is actually “one of the most common things we see children for.” Yet, “99.9 percent of chest pain in all children is non-cardiac,” he adds – and most is a resting, non-exertional pain, usually musculoskeletal related.


“Ultimately, you want to prepare a child for safety in sports and one of the areas is certainly the heart, but it’s not the only area,” Humes notes.

In general, students coming in for sports physicals don’t need to make an appointment with the cardiologist and little is gained with cardiology tests. For most kids, “the physical that they have done at a pediatrician’s office is completely adequate to looking for the kind of things that we want to look for prior to participation,” Humes says.


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