If you sustain an orthopaedic injury or concussion from sports or physical activity, several sports medicine providers may contribute to your care, including:
- Athletic trainers.
- Primary care sports medicine doctors.
- Physical medicine and rehabilitation doctors (physiatrists).
- Orthopaedic surgeons.
- Physical therapists.
Each sports medicine provider’s specialty is important. Learn about each providers’ expertise and how they use a team approach — working together to get you back to doing what you love safer and sooner.
For athletes who are practicing or playing a sport at the time of injury, an athletic trainer (AT ) is often one of the first people to see them. Athletic trainers are health care professionals who collaborate with doctors to evaluate and treat sports injuries and other health problems.
At UPMC Sports Medicine, our athletic trainers are found on the sidelines of 75+ school and community teams, and local events providing preventive services, emergency care, and rehab services. They are often first on the field to evaluate an injury, provide the initial care, and then ensure the athlete receives the follow-up care they need.
You may have an AT assigned to your school or team. If you do, you know they’re often close with the players and care for them every step of the way. Other AT responsibilities usually include:
- Coordinating fast-tracked appointments with other sports medicine providers.
- Facilitating conditioning.
- Baseline concussion testing.
- Screening programs for athletes.
- Providing educational lectures and courses to future ATs (who may be current student-athletes).
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Primary Care Sports Medicine Doctor
Sometimes known as the gatekeeper to orthopaedic injuries and conditions — and not just those from sports — primary care sports medicine doctors provide nonsurgical orthopaedic care and specialize in both family medicine/internal medicine and sports medicine.
Often, primary care sports medicine doctors serve as team doctors for high school, collegiate, and professional teams — standing alongside athletic trainers on the sidelines at practices, games, and other events. They also provide consultations and care in a clinical setting.
At UPMC Sports Medicine, our primary care sports medicine doctors are part of the UPMC Department of Orthopaedic Surgery. While they see student-athletes at partner schools for a variety of injuries and illnesses, they are primarily orthopaedic doctors who specialize in sports medicine.
Our sports medicine doctors do ultrasound-guided procedures, see all orthopaedic injuries, conduct thorough evaluations, and collect diagnostics to help guide the best next steps. Keep in mind that they’re not primary care doctors for everyone and do not conduct general wellness visits.
Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R) Doctor (Physiatrist)
In the world of sports medicine, PM&R doctors (or physiatrists) perform many of the same diagnoses and nonsurgical procedures as primary care sports medicine doctors. But their medical education and training has a slightly different focus.
The practice of physical medicine and rehabilitation is about helping patients regain functional ability and improve their quality of life. Some physiatrists take the route of providing inpatient rehabilitation — which may include treating patients with brain injuries, spinal cord injuries, and other traumatic conditions. While others choose the outpatient route — which includes the subspecialty of sports medicine.
Physiatrists diagnose — and provide nonsurgical treatment — to patients of all ages in the clinical setting. They are part of the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Physiatrists sometimes serve as team doctors for local sports organizations. If they specialize in sports medicine, they often are part of UPMC Sports Medicine and see patients at those facilities.
They provide all-encompassing care and collaborate with physical therapists from UPMC Rehabilitation Institute to help patients improve the function of the injured area, as well as overall strength and wellness. Physiatrists, like primary care sports medicine doctors, may refer patients to an orthopaedic surgeon should an injury require surgical care.
A neuropsychologist is an expert in the relationship between the brain and human behavior. So how does this fit into sports medicine? At the UPMC Sports Medicine Concussion Program, our team of doctors are all neuropsychologists.
Our neuropsychologists see patients in clinical setting and sometimes consult alongside a partner team’s primary care sports medicine doctor or physiatrist and athletic trainer. They diagnose concussions and develop active, comprehensive treatment plans in which patients work with vestibular and exertional physical therapists to approach their concussion head on.
While neuropsychologists may work in other specialties, at UPMC they are sports medicine providers because they lead our sports concussion program. But they also see patients who have sustained concussions in other ways. Between 1.7 and 3 million sports- and recreation-related concussions happen each year in the United States alone, so neuropsychologists are extremely valuable members of our sports medicine care team.
Orthopaedic surgeons are medical professionals who specialize in surgical treatment of injuries and conditions of the musculoskeletal system — the bones, joints, ligaments, tendons, and muscles — that keeps you moving. In sports medicine, orthopaedic surgeons see patients in a clinical setting and may consult for sports teams at all levels of competition.
In orthopaedic training, some surgeons specialize in joint replacement or treatment of arthritis, while others choose to treat acute injuries that occur in sports or physical activity. Those who go the sports route may perform surgery on such injuries as ACL and rotator cuff tears, broken ankles, and joint overuse.
Like the other sports medicine providers, orthopaedic surgeons are part of the team. From patient workup through return to play, they collaborate with nurses, the patient’s primary care provider, and especially physical therapists who provide rehabilitation to prepare an athlete for surgery, restore their strength, balance, and prepare them to return to the field of play.
Last but certainly not least, physical therapists are a key recovery component in a large majority of sports-related injuries. Physical therapists (PTs ) are medical professionals who specialize in exercise and other approaches to help patients improve movement, relieve pain, and ultimately get back to the level of activity they had before the injury. They specialize in various areas such as sports medicine and may be subspecialists in areas like concussions, hip, back, and knee injuries, and more. In the best cases, PTs even help patients achieve an even greater level of strength and stability than they had before the injury.
Sometimes a primary care sports medicine doctor or physiatrist will prescribe physical therapy as the primary treatment for a certain injury — or recommend it along with another nonsurgical approach. But PT often accompanies surgical treatments. Some patients work with a physical therapist before surgery to build strength. And most patients will have PT after surgery. When areas around an injury are stronger and more stable, the body relies less on the injured or surgically repaired area which allows more time to heal.
For a comprehensive approach to care, PTs will collaborate with sports performance and sports nutrition experts to help patients improve function and performance. While performance and nutrition are key members of the sports medicine care team, those services are often not covered by insurance.
Sports Medicine at UPMC
At UPMC Sports Medicine, we couldn’t do what we do without our entire care team — and they’re not all mentioned in this article. Key members of our team include countless nurses, radiologists, assistants, administrators, and others who help provide a seamless care experience for our patients.
Athletes and active people alike may visit any location where a UPMC Sports Medicine provider sees patients and receive expert orthopaedic care — with a special interest in getting you back to the sports and activities you love — from start to finish.
To schedule an appointment or learn more about UPMC Sports Medicine, please call 1-855-937-7678 or visit our website.
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
About Sports Medicine
An athletic lifestyle carries the potential for injury. Whether you’re an elite athlete or a weekend warrior, UPMC Sports Medicine can help. If you are looking to prevent, treat, or rehabilitate a sports injury, our multidisciplinary team of experts can help you get back into the game. If you are seeking to improve your athletic performance, we can work with you to meet your goals. We serve athletes and active people of all ages and experience levels. Our goal is to help you keep doing what you love. Visit our website to find a specialist near you.