When to See a Doctor (Care of the Young Athlete)

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A safe and speedy return to activity following a
sports injury or an illness depends on early recognition and treatment. Knowing
when to see your doctor is an important step in this process. With major
injuries or illnesses, there is little doubt about the need to seek medical
attention. However, it is much more difficult to know when to seek help if there
is no obvious trauma or if the symptoms don’t get in the way of playing.
Many overuse injuries, such as tendonitis or stress fractures, happen over time
and often have subtle symptoms. The result can be a delay in diagnosis and
treatment, and delays can lead to a more serious or disabling injury.

General comments

Athletes should see a doctor for

  • Symptoms that do not go away after rest
    and home treatment

  • Any condition that affects training or
    performance that has not been given a diagnosis or has not been

  • Any condition that may be a risk to
    other teammates or competitors

Types of conditions

There are 3 types of conditions in which an
athlete may need to see a doctor: acute injuries, overuse injuries, and medical
illnesses or conditions.

Also, any athlete with a chronic injury or
medical condition should see a doctor and be approved to participate in sports.
Even if a pre-sport physical is not required, it is a good idea for all athletes
to have an annual medical checkup before the sports season begins. This is
especially true if there is any history of medical problems, injury, or regular
use of medicines, or if there are questions about training.

The following are examples of these 3
conditions, their typical symptoms, and when to check with the doctor.

Acute injuries

Examples Symptoms When to Check With Your Doctor
Sprains, strains, fractures, dislocations, growth plate
separation, torn cartilage, bruises, cuts, scrapes, pinched
nerves, herniated disks
Pain (other symptoms that restrict sports activity and
affect daily activity),
swelling, bruising,
deformity, spasm, restricted or locking joint, instability,
numbness, tingling, shooting pains
  • Joint swelling,
    locking, or instability

  • Visible deformity or
    mass in arms, legs, or joints

  • Inability to fully
    move a joint, arm, or leg

  • Inability to stand
    or walk

  • Back or neck
    pain—especially if there is also numbness,
    weakness, or pain that runs down the arm or leg

  • Pain that does not
    go away

  • Pain that disrupts
    daily activity or sleep

Overuse Injuries

Examples Symptoms When to Check With Your Doctor
Tendonitis; shin splints; stress fractures; growth plate
problems like Osgood-Schlatter, Sever’s disease, or
Little League elbow; bursitis; fasciitis; compartment syndrome;
nerve entrapment; spondylolysis

Pain (or other
symptoms that get worse with activity but go away with
tightness, popping, or grinding in
joints; mild or localized swelling; weakness

At first, symptoms are
noticeable after vigorous activity. As the condition gets
worse, symptoms occur with any activity and, eventually, the
symptoms restrict activity.

  • Localized pain that
    gets worse over time or increases with continued

  • Pain, swelling,
    stiffness, and/or weakness that gets in the way of
    training or sports activity

  • Pain or other
    symptoms that do not go away even with treatments
    such as rest, ice, or use of pain medicines

  • Pain that gets in
    the way with daily activity or disrupts sleep

Medical illness/conditions

Examples Symptoms When to Check With Your Doctor

Headache, disorientation,
loss of consciousness*, blurry vision, nausea, memory
loss, dizziness, lethargy, agitation, vomiting, fatigue,

*It is possible to have a concussion without
loss of consciousness.

Check with a doctor before return to play
with any concussion or if any of these symptoms
develop after a head injury.
Fever Other symptoms depend on cause of fever. Any fever =101?F for >4 hours. Playing with
a fever may increase the risk of heat illness.
Skin infection (impetigo, herpes, ringworm, measles) Rashes that are raised, open, draining or with a discharge; have
small blisters; or are cracked and bleeding
These types of rashes should be checked and treated before
returning to sports, particularly for athletes in contact or
collision sports.
Abdominal (stomach) pain Pain, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, appetite loss,
decreased fluid intake
  • If symptoms persist,
    they should be checked. Liver and spleen can be
    enlarged with mono or other flu-like illnesses. This
    is most important for athletes in contact or
    collision sports.

  • These symptoms
    increase the risk of dehydration, which can
    negatively affect performance and increase the risk
    of heat-related illness.

Cardiac (heart) disease (myocarditis, pericarditis,
endocarditis, cardiac contusion, dysrhythmia)
Chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, feeling
light-headed or passing out with exercise
See a doctor if any of these symptoms develop.
Respiratory (breathing) disease (asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia),
laryngeal contusion/fracture, pneumothorax (collapsed lung),
Shortness of breath, cough, wheezing, chest pain, stridor (noisy
breathing), absent breath sounds
See a doctor if any of these symptoms
Heat injury (heat exhaustion, heat stroke) Exhaustion, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, headache; consider
heat stroke if body temperature increases
  • For heat
    exhaustion—check with a doctor before
    returning to play.

  • For heat
    stroke—call 911.