I gave a talk on injuries among female athletes recently. One of the listeners in the audience reluctantly came up to the stage after the talk to ask me a question. She mentioned that she had recently developed pain on the outside of her knee when she jogged. It surprised me that she felt bad asking me for advice because she wasn’t an athlete like those I typically treat.

This is actually a common misperception. Maybe the term sports medicine is misleading. Sports medicine might imply that surgeons and primary-care sports medicine doctors only evaluate people who play competitive sports. Possibly the only sports medicine doctors the public hears about are the ones who serve as team doctors for professional sports or those who discuss injuries of famous athletes in the media.

A runner is an athlete

The broader meaning of “athlete”

I would argue that the term “athlete” has a much broader application. I believe that just about everyone is an athlete. If you like to jog or lift weights for exercise, you’re an athlete. If you play adult co-ed softball or flag football in a recreational league, you are an athlete. If you like to walk or play golf to stay active at an older age, you’re still an athlete.

Being a team doctor for professional sports is certainly rewarding. Those elite athletes are a minority of the patients most sports medicine surgeons see on a daily basis. Even factoring in team sports athletes of all ages and skill levels – youth leagues, travel teams, high school and college sports – there is a huge percentage of patients we treat that don’t fall into these groups.

Goal of sports medicine to treat all athletes

One of our main goals in sports medicine is to help people return to the sports or exercise that they like to do. It doesn’t matter if that physical activity is playing football, training in boot camp classes, or using an elliptical machine. For me, there is no greater thrill as a doctor and surgeon than to see the excitement on a patient’s face when I allow her to return to her activities.

Woman lifting weights in the gym

My point is simple. All of these messages that I and other sports medicine healthcare providers share – injury prevention efforts, rules changes to decrease injuries, explanations of injuries, treatments and much more – apply not only to competitive athletes, but to ALL of you who are athletes in your own ways.