Sports Medicine Degree Programs

What is Sports Medicine?

Sports medicine is a branch of healthcare devoted to the application of medical knowledge and expertise to the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and management of injuries related to participation in sports, exercise, and other physical and recreational activities. Professionals who work in sports medicine may provide healthcare services to men and women who participate in athletic pursuits of all kinds. The practice of sports medicine encompasses a variety of allied health professions and areas of medical expertise. Allied health professionals who work in the field of sports medicine include fitness trainers, rehabilitative therapists, exercise physiologists, and sports psychologists.


Those who engage in sports medicine may usually choose one of two career tracks or focuses:  the improvement of fitness and enhancement of performance, or the prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and management of injuries.  Some healthcare professionals who work in the field of sports medicine specialize in helping athletes increase their fitness and performance

In addition to attending to acute and chronic injuries and helping athletes rehabilitate from and manage such injuries, allied health professionals who work in sports medicine counsel athletes on matters such as diet and exercise regimens, as well as other factors that impact athletic performance, including cardiopulmonary function and psychological issues relating to competition and performance anxiety.  Sports medicine practitioners are also called upon to educate athletes regarding the effects of steroids and other performance enhancing substances.  Their work sometimes requires them to manage the impact of controlled substances on athletes who have taken them in an effort to improve their performance or handle the pressures of competition and other psychological stressors.

What injuries do rehabilitative therapists and other sports medicine professionals treat?

Much of the work of those who practice sports medicine involves the treatment of various common sports injuries and conditions related to physical exertion.  These injuries and conditions can range from the mild, such as muscle cramps, to the more serious, such as concussions.  Muscle cramps can result from strain or overuse of the muscles and can cause severe pain brought on by muscle spasms that interfere with performance and recovery from injury.


Concussions, which result from the impact of the brain against the skull, are a form of head injury that usually do not result in lasting damage but can be serious if not treated properly.  Many athletes are vulnerable to such injuries as a result of falls or impact with other players or sports equipment during games or competition. 

Athletes are especially prone to soft tissue injuries, and rehabilitative therapists and other sports medicine practitioners are specially trained to prevent, treat, and care for this type of injury. Soft tissue injuries include strains, sprains, and ligament tears.  Sprains and strains that occur frequently in athletes include ligaments of the ankle and of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), a ligament that helps stabilize the knee. 

Other common sports injuries include those sustained as a result of repetitive stress and overuse including shin splints and inflammation of the tendons.  On occasion, accidents, including falls and collisions, can occur resulting in bruises, cuts, and bone fractures.  In extreme cases, sports medicine practitioners may be called upon to treat traumatic injuries. 

Rehabilitative therapists can treat minor injuries with ice, compression, elevation, or rest.  More serious injuries may require the attention of a sports physician or other healthcare practitioner.  Injuries sustained during the course of athletic practice or competition, even relatively minor ones, can have psychological effects on an athlete, so the services of a sports psychologist may be needed during recovery and rehabilitation.


What is the history of sports medicine?

The study of sports medicine has its roots in venerable ancient cultures dating back thousands of years.  In 2500 B.C, practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine were exploring physical exercise as a means of preventing illness and prolonging the human lifespan.  In ancient Greece, the site of the first Olympic games in history, the physician, Herodicus was known as a teacher of “athletic medicine” and is still considered the father of sports medicine.  Physical activity occupied a place of prominence in ancient Greek culture, and athletics were considered not only a form of entertainment but also a means of education and self-improvement.  Greek physicians, including Hippocrates, widely considered the first real doctor in history and the source of the now famous Hippocratic oath, devoted significant time to treating sports-related injuries and preparing athletes for competitive performance.  The science of sports medicine also thrived during the days of the Roman Empire, when gladiatorial sports served as a popular form of entertainment.  Perhaps the first team physician in human history, Clautius Galen served as the on-call medical expert and rehabilitative therapist for the Roman Gladiators.  Galen’s research into muscle tissue and his advanced insights into their function helped him advise the gladiators on how to maximize their performance and develop exercises for purposes of performance enhancement and rehabilitation therapy.  Unfortunately, the importance of athletics and physical exercise in society declined during the Dark and Middle Ages.

It wasn’t until the modern era that interest in physical activity as a means of improving health and fitness was revived and contemporary sports medicine schools came into existence.  An English physiologist designed the first treadmill in the nineteenth century. A forerunner to sports medicine emerged in Scandinavia in the form of the field of gymnastics, which aimed to improve physical and mental performance through exercise.  The fields of muscle physiology and exercise physiology emerged in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century.  The study of the effects of exercise and exertion on muscles and the body gained new legitimacy when an English physiologist named A.V. Hill earned the Nobel Prize for his research in this field.  The first lab devoted to human physiology in America, the Harvard Fatigue Lab, was opened at Harvard University in 1927.  One of the founders of this lab went on to found the American College of Sports Medicine in 1954.  As the decades progressed, research into human physiology and the effects of physical exertion was taken up by the U.S. military and by reputable scientists.  Interest in exercise physiology and the mechanics of the human body grew as exercise fads, including aerobics, began to hit mainstream American society.


However, the practice of sports medicine and the emergence of the concept of rehabilitative therapy as an allied healthcare profession are relatively new phenomena.  It was not until 1990 that rehabilitative therapy gained recognition as an allied healthcare profession by the American Medical Association.  The growing legitimacy of the field is due largely to the increasingly central role that sports and physical activity are taking in the lives not just of professional athletes, but also in the lives of amateur athletes, including schoolchildren, and individuals who engage in exercise and fitness regimens in an effort to enhance and maintain physical and psychological health.  As exercise and athletics have become a part of everyday life, there has been increased awareness of the fact that athletes have special healthcare needs and that exercise and fitness goals and our methods of achieving them raise unique concerns for healthcare practitioners.

Sports Medicine Schools