A sports physician, one who works at the pro sports level, has become set for life financially. He works with pro athletes at the top of their game, keeping them healthy with 6 a.m. yoga sessions and custom protein drinks. The team doc flies on the team jet, eats caviar for breakfast, and uses every penny of his unlimited equipment and supplies budget. He especially enjoys working with the team's new high-dollar franchise player, a friendly, considerate chap who only has the team's welfare at heart.
Uh… no. If that’s how you imagine the life of a sports physician, you may want to think again.
Here’s the reality of a pro sports physician's job. Yes, he flies on the team jet, eats nice meals, and pulls down a hefty salary. However, that $100 million franchise player (who's the only reason fans even show up at the games) is actually a mean drunk who has some substance abuse issues. Seems like just about every week you're trying to pull his sorry butt together so he can play one more football game. You've got the general manager and the coaches breathing down your neck, screaming at you to get the guy on the field so they don't lose any more money. If you scrub him, the fans will stay away and the team will lose a boatload of revenue. If management fires the guy, not only will they owe him a bunch of money, but he'll probably sue the team to the verge of bankruptcy.
Good thing many sports physicians escape this high-pressure rat race. In fact, this horror story might be completely foreign to many of them. Let's step back and figure out how a sports physician career is supposed to work.
First and foremost, a sports physician is a specially trained medical doctor who's passionate about health and fitness. He focuses on keeping athletes of all levels healthy and injury-free, and in treating those injuries and disabilities that do occur. You can find a sports physician working with patients new to exercise, longtime fitness buffs, triathletes, college sports programs, professional sports teams of all types, and even Olympic competitors. Sometimes he's a generalist; sometimes he only works with specific types of athletes, such as swimmers or football players. That's the big picture.
Now let's look at the nuts and bolts of a sports physician's work. Basically, he (or she) focuses on non-surgical treatment of musculoskeletal sports-related problems. In plain English, he works with muscles and bones. He diagnoses and treats acute problems such as muscle strains, shoulder and knee ailments, sprained ankles, and fractures. The sports doc also treats overuse-caused injuries such as stress fractures and tendonitis. As you might expect, he also decides when an athlete can (and can't) compete due to injury. When necessary, a sports doc refers patients to an orthopedic surgeon, who efficiently carves them up, er… fixes their problems in the operating room. The sports doc can also arrange physical therapy or rehab services if his patient needs them.
But keep in mind that sports medicine involves much more than injury diagnosis and treatment. Sports physicians also monitor athletes' chronic illnesses such as asthma or diabetes. On the flip side, a sports doc also focuses on helping his athletes stay healthy and injury-free. Depending on an athlete's needs and limitations, the sports doc might prescribe a strength training program that increases an athlete's overall fitness without aggravating an injury-prone body part. He might also work with a nutritionist who helps the athlete better fuel his body for his increased exercise needs.
Okay, that describes a sports physician who works in private practice, perhaps alone or within an affiliated medical group. You'll find these sports docs working with individual athletes and as resources for high school or community sports teams. However, sports physicians also work with college sports programs and professional sports teams. That's an entirely different ballgame.
First, let's talk about sports physicians who work with college sports programs. Depending on the program's size, types of sports, and budget, a sports doc might act as a consultant to the entire program or just to a specific sport. Regardless of his focus, he conducts pre-sports exams to make sure an athlete is fit for competition. He monitors athletes' general health as best he can, considering college athletes' propensity for overindulging in prohibited substances.
On the pro level, one or more sports physicians work closely with the team at all times. In fact, the sports doc often leads an athletes' support team consisting of coaches, trainers, nutritionists, sports psychologists, and physical therapists. Orthopedic surgeons are just a phone call away for those unfortunate athletes who experience an injury that requires surgery.
That's a great lead-in to our comparison of a sports medicine physician vs. an orthopedic surgeon. Yes, both are licensed physicians, and both are experts in musculoskeletal problems. Both physicians use non-surgical treatment methods when appropriate. However, the orthopedic surgeon has another trick up his sleeve: his scalpel. When surgery is the best option, he's the guy you want on your team.
At this point, you might be thinking a sports physician gig sounds like a good bet. You get to work with athletes, travel with them on the college and pro levels, and generally try to keep them healthy and injury-free. Hopefully you've also realized that this career requires a high degree of personal commitment, as you might be called out at any time to diagnose and/or treat a player's physical problem. On the pro sports level, you'll be living out of a suitcase, although in pretty nice hotels. You'll see (and smell) more of gritty, scarred-up athletes than you ever wanted, but that's your job. You need a high degree of tolerance and patience, ability to put your personal life on the back burner, and a willingness to work with other members of the treatment team. In plain English, you have to check your ego at the door.
Finally, you admit you're intrigued by some parts of a sports physician's job, although you're really not up for the travel and 3 a.m. wake-up call stuff. You might be interested in a physical therapy or rehab specialist career, where you'll get a chance to help patients regain their physical abilities after strokes, accidents, combat injuries, and other life-altering occurrences. You'll still get plenty of job satisfaction, but the hours are much more predictable. If you're a fitness fanatic, but would prefer working with clients in a different environment, consider a career as a personal trainer.