Specialty spotlight

The joys of PM&R sports medicine

Learn what specializing in PM&R sports medicine entails and some of the more unique attributes of this rewarding subspecialty.


A former athlete and all-around active individual, I spent my undergraduate years as an athletic trainer. The personal satisfaction of safely returning athletes to competition is what set my career path in motion. Working with sports injuries, especially spine injuries, can be very tough. I wanted to provide athletes with answers and treatment options that would allow them to return to their respective sports.

That desire led to me choosing physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM&R) for my specialty. I also obtained fellowship training in interventional spine and sports medicine at OSS Health in York, Pennsylvania, under the directorship of Michael Furman, MD. I owe a great deal to his mentorship.

Interventional spine and sports medicine fellowships are one year long and begin after completion of a four-year residency in PM&R. The full listing of interventional spine and musculoskeletal medicine (ISMM) fellowships and more information are shared on the NASS website.

Caring for athletes and the community

As a practicing physician at Keck Medicine of USC in Los Angeles, I am part of the team that oversees the care for athletes playing for the National Hockey League’s LA Kings and the USC Trojans. I also serve as a team physician for the U.S. Ski and Snowboard team. While my everyday responsibilities involve athletes of all levels, I also care for everyone else within my community.

Evidence has shown that when patients are cared for by physicians who are like them, it improves health outcomes. As an active father, husband and athlete, my experiences help me understand the requirements of everyday life as it relates to the needs of athletes. Treating the whole person involves more than addressing injuries to facilitate a return to competition; we must also ensure that we are not compromising the athlete’s daily life responsibilities or future health in the process.

Below, I want to share some details about what specializing in PM&R sports medicine entails and some of the more unique attributes of this subspecialty.

Care and prevention

The care and prevention of athletic injuries does not differ much from the care of any other person. We each have our own functional strengths and weaknesses that we balance with our daily responsibilities. While shooting a puck on the ice, spiking a volleyball or throwing a football differs from loading a delivery truck or sitting in front of a computer all day long, the commonality that guides those who care for musculoskeletal injuries is understanding the demands of the work coupled with the knowledge of body mechanics, tissue healing and repair principles.

My specialty and additional fellowship training in interventional spine and sports medicine allow me to work with some of the most elite athletes while still staying grounded in the roots and principles of PM&R as I care for the entire community. While taking care of professional athletes is an enjoyable experience, the skills required to do so transfer extraordinarily well to caring for all.

Physiatrists are experts in designing comprehensive, patient-centered treatment plans. We are integral members of the care team. We use cutting-edge and time-tested treatments to maximize function and quality of life for our patients, who range in age from infants to octogenarians. My philosophy of care is rooted in this sentiment. The goal of treatment should be optimization and return to the patient’s preinjury function whenever possible.

The importance of patient education

Working with an athletic care team usually includes athletic trainers, physical therapists and physicians in other specialties, not to mention the coaching staff and liaisons to the athletic department responsible for everyday logistics. And we can’t forget the sports agents and parents (even for those athletes who are over 18). Every patient’s situation is unique and prioritization of an individual treatment plan that can allow for optimal outcomes and functional improvement is paramount.

I also provide coverage at community events like road races, triathlons, and high school sporting events as education remains the optimal path to prevention of injuries. Some athletes have all the resources in the world, while others are left to their own devices to learn new information.

In caring for all individuals, including elite athletes, it is vital to educate them on proper lifting techniques, workout routines and the preparation that will lead to optimal performance. It is this process that makes athletes great. Those who enjoy the work needed to be elite are more often than not the most successful. Sports medicine is not only focused on treating musculoskeletal injuries but also on preventing injuries and the optimization of function and performance.

Patients also need to consider short-, medium- and long-term goals. Things like the next competition, next season, or the next Olympics, or for those in the community, their everyday responsibilities and limitations.

Understanding and managing expectations, performances and abilities are integral to providing excellent and appropriate care. The physical treatment of injuries is only a small part of what is required in treating patients, including elite athletes, and the foundations of physical medicine and rehabilitation help guide patient care and education.

Editor’s note: The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of The DO or the AOA.

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