What Is Sports Medicine?

A sports medicine degree teaches you how to treat and prevent sports injuries and prepares you for a lucrative career as an in-demand healthcare professional.
Published on Sep 14, 2020
Updated Dec 09, 2021
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  • Sports medicine focuses on treating injuries and improving athletic performance.
  • As a healthcare profession, sports medicine careers are experiencing rapid growth.
  • Certain sports medicine jobs may require additional training, certification, and/or licensure.

A multidisciplinary field, sports and exercise medicine is concerned with treating and preventing injury resulting from athletic activity. Nutritionists, personal trainers, physical therapists, psychologists, and physicians can all work within the realm of sports medicine.

These professionals help patients recover from acute traumas like sprains, dislocations, and fractures, as well as injuries resulting from chronic overuse, such as tendonitis and overtraining syndrome.

The widespread popularity of professional sports and the healthcare industry's continued emphasis on preventative medicine makes now a great time to pursue a sports medicine career.

This guide provides an overview of the diverse occupations in this field. You'll also learn about the general admission requirements and objectives of sports medicine degree programs.

An athlete stretches a yellow rubber band across his chest while a physical therapist places his hands on the athlete's shoulders.

yacobchuk / iStock / Getty Images Plus

What Is Sports Medicine?

Sports medicine is an allied health field that focuses on preventing illness in active individuals and restoring function to injured patients.

Sports medicine specialists can work with professional athletes or everyday people.

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Practitioners in this field may work with professional athletes, helping them improve their physical prowess through strategic conditioning. Alternatively, these health professionals can provide services to everyday people, treating adults with physically demanding jobs or supporting the changing bodies of children and teenagers.

In addition to treating conditions like concussions, tendonitis, and exercise-induced asthma, sports medicine specialists educate patients on nutrition and supplements. They also design workout plans that cater to a client's body and physical limitations.

What Is the Job Demand for Sports Medicine?

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), healthcare employment is projected to grow 15% between 2019 and 2029, translating to about 2.4 million new jobs for the U.S. economy. Within this dynamic field, sports medicine careers are projected to grow at similarly high rates.

BLS employment projections over the next decade are notably high for occupational therapists, athletic trainers, and physical therapists.

On top of high employability, sports medicine providers earn some of the best salaries among healthcare professionals. Both orthopedic surgeons and physiatrists make over $200,000 a year, while sports medicine physicians and orthopedic nurses enjoy annual salaries of at least $100,000.

The following chart shows the median salaries and employment growth rates for popular sports medicine careers.

Job Median Annual Salary Employment Growth Rate (2019-29)
Orthopedic Surgeon $380,000 4% (all surgeons)
Physiatrist $209,000 4% (all physicians)
Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician $182,000 4% (all physicians)
Orthopedic Nurse $100,000 45% (all nurses)
Physical Therapist $89,440 18%
Occupational Therapist $84,950 16%
Sports Psychologist $72,000 3% (all psychologists)
Exercise Physiologist $49,170 11%
Athletic Trainer $48,440 16%

Source: BLS, PayScale

10 Popular Sports Medicine Jobs

Exercise Physiologist

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Working with physicians, exercise physiologists develop fitness programs to help patients manage chronic diseases and strengthen flexibility and cardiovascular function. They evaluate a patient's medical history and conduct stress and fitness tests to create personalized exercise plans.

To work as an exercise physiologist, you need a bachelor's degree that's been accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.

Athletic Trainer

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These sports medicine specialists diagnose, treat, and prevent injuries and illnesses of the bone and muscle. While some athletic trainers find employment with fitness centers and healthcare facilities, most work in educational settings, like secondary schools and universities.

In addition to a bachelor's degree, athletic trainers must typically obtain state-specific, professional credentials by passing the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer exam.

Orthopedic Nurse

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Experienced registered nurses who've passed the Orthopaedic Nurses Certification exam can become specialists who treat musculoskeletal injuries and conditions, including osteoporosis, fractured bones, and arthritis. These practitioners also assist surgeons with procedures like joint replacements.


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Unlike physical therapists, kinesiotherapists focus on applying scientifically based exercise principles to enhance the strength, endurance, and mobility of medically stable individuals.

These professionals must complete baccalaureate training, studying core exercise science concepts and acquiring rehabilitating skills for use in clinical settings. Kinesiotherapists can also pursue official registration through the American Kinesiotherapy Association.

Physical Therapist

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Sports medicine specialists who obtain a doctorate and pass the National Physical Therapy Examination can work as licensed physical therapists. These professionals help ill and injured people manage pain and strengthen mobility. After reviewing a patient's medical history and diagnosing their condition, physical therapists create individualized care plans detailing specific goals and projected outcomes.

Sports Psychologist

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Sports psychology is a specialization that practitioners can pursue after earning a graduate degree -- usually a doctorate -- in a primary psychological field and attaining board licensure. As interventionists, sports psychologists help athletes achieve optimal performance; they also study the social aspects of athletic participation and systemic issues in the sports industry.

Sports Medicine Nurse

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Nurse practitioners can pursue a sports medicine specialization to assist physicians in treating musculoskeletal injuries, such as bone fractures, torn ligaments, and joint sprains.

These nurses primarily work at physical therapy practices and orthopedic clinics, and may also provide medical services at sporting events. Large companies often hire sports medicine nurses to help implement employee health initiatives.


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Also known as physical medicine and rehabilitation physicians, physiatrists treat injuries and illnesses related to the bones, joints, nerves, muscle, ligaments, and tendons, as well as brain and spinal conditions.

Medical doctors can become physiatrists by completing specialized training. They may even pursue a subspecialty in areas like sports medicine, pain medicine, and hospice and palliative medicine.

Primary Care Sports Medicine Physician

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These doctors offer an array of non-surgical care to professional athletes and other physically active people. With in-depth knowledge of athletic conditioning, sports medicine physicians can diagnose skeletal and muscular conditions and offer nutritional guidance to enhance patients' endurance and strength.

Orthopedic Surgeon

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As medical doctors with at least 14 years of formal training and board certification, orthopedic surgeons are leaders in the sports medicine field. These professionals diagnose, treat, and help prevent musculoskeletal conditions in patients of all ages.

In lieu of a generalist route, orthopedic surgeons may specialize in a particular area of the body, such as the hand, spine, or hip.

An occupational therapist stretches a man's bandage-wrapped foot inside a medical office.

aldomurillo / E+ / Getty Images

Earning a Sports Medicine Degree

Like many other medical fields, career options depend on the level and focus of an individual's sports medicine degree. As they pursue higher academic training, professionals gain access to specialized occupations that center on management, clinical practice, and/or research.

While some students spend over a decade completing formal education requirements to become physicians, surgeons, and other clinicians, you can technically begin a sports medicine career with just an undergraduate degree.

Many sports medicine jobs require only a bachelor’s degree.

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Colleges and universities offer bachelor's degrees in sports medicine, exercise science, kinesiology, and sports management. These four-year programs develop core skills like physical conditioning and injury prevention and care, enabling you to work as a personal trainer or physician assistant, or even get into graduate school.

Master's programs in sports medicine build upon prior education and experience to help you cultivate a specialized skill set. You can earn an online master's in sports medicine that emphasizes athletic training, health education, or program administration.

To become a physical therapist or orthopedic surgeon, you must obtain the relevant doctorate before applying for board certification.

What Skills Do Sports Medicine Majors Gain?

Strength Conditioning

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Through coursework in exercise physiology, students gain an understanding of how physical training impacts human health and performance. This knowledge allows them to develop individualized athletic training regimens, or oversee the physical education program at a school or for a professional sports team.

Injury Care and Prevention

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Students learn how to provide general and emergency treatment of athletic injuries in competitive and noncompetitive settings. These services include taping, wrapping, and bandaging wounds, as well as preventative and rehabilitative exercises.

Critical Analysis

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A core skill for all sports medicine careers, critical analysis enables you to evaluate a person's physiology and habit for the purpose of developing a personalized care plan. Analytical skills also come into play when healthcare providers need to diagnose an injury or illness.


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Regardless of your profession, the ability to lead with compassion and multicultural understanding is critical to long-term success in today's globalized economy. Sports management programs teach students how to recruit, train, and motivate employees and athletes.

Applied Research

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Graduate sports medicine programs heavily emphasize research. Students learn the guidelines and best practices in their realm before completing field experiences and pursuing independent projects.

What Fields Can Sports Medicine Majors Go Into?


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A subfield of kinesiology, biomechanics applies mechanical principles to the study of movement in living organisms. Professionals examine how external factors affect physiological functions related to human health and performance.

Hospice Care

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Physical therapists, nurses, and palliative care doctors often work in hospice settings, providing treatment and emotional support to patients with serious illnesses. Sports medicine professionals can fulfill roles as exercise and enrichment program coordinators.

Higher Education

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Most trainers find employment at colleges and universities. There, they can offer one-on-one training to students and staff or help athletic teams achieve competitive success.

Pediatric Rehabilitation Medicine

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Physiatrists who specialize in pediatric rehabilitation medicine diagnose, treat, and prevent congenital and childhood-onset illnesses and impairments. With thorough knowledge of rehabilitation intervention strategies, these healthcare providers support patients throughout the full course of their disability.

The Value of a Sports Medicine Career

As a relatively new interdisciplinary field, sports medicine offers an impressive variety of academic and employment opportunities. Those who prefer non-clinical careers can work as athletic coaches, personal trainers, or postsecondary teachers; they may also occupy an administrative or managerial role in collegiate or professional sports.

Because sports medicine centers on health education and care, most careers — including the fastest-growing and highest-paying positions — require a combination of clinical training and certification or licensure.

As part of the healthcare industry, most sports medicine careers require a combination of clinical training and certification or licensure.

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Besides working in primary care, nursing, or physical therapy, sports medicine providers can pursue a career in sports psychology, conducting studies to discover connections between a person's cognitive processes and their physical performance. They can also work as personal trainers, with the option to advance their careers by working with professional sports teams as certified strength and conditioning coaches.

Sports medicine is dedicated to enhancing quality of life by helping people of all backgrounds recover from debilitations and improve their physical conditions. With near-constant evolutions in healthcare practices and technologies, sports medicine careers will continue to grow with the help of students, practitioners, and researchers.

Feature Image: peakSTOCK / iStock / Getty Images Plus

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