Ultimate Guide to Sports Medicine

Sports medicine is a vast sector comprising the professionals that work with athletes and other people faced with physical injuries. Sports medicine professionals work in preventative health care, treatment, diagnostics, and rehabilitation. 

Some sports medicine practitioners, like sports medicine physicians, orthopedic surgeons, and physical therapists, are traditional doctors. Other professionals, like dietitians and nutritionists, athletic trainers, and exercise physiologists, aren’t traditional doctors but do work alongside them. 

Choosing a career in sports medicine can be difficult. There are many options, and each option has its pros and cons. For example, orthopedic surgeons have a 14-or-more-year path until they can begin practicing their trade. But when they do, they can earn $500,000 or more per year. On the other hand, nutritionists only have to go to school for four years, but their salary won’t reach the level of an orthopedic surgeon.

In this guide, we’re going to detail the many degrees in sports medicine. We’ll talk about how long it takes to get each degree, the popularity of each field, and the career outlook for each profession. 

Sports Medicine Physician

Sports medicine physicians are traditional doctors that nonsurgically treat athletes and others with musculoskeletal issues. They work as diagnosticians, rehabilitators, and links between orthopedic surgeons and severely injured athletes. 

They make an impressive income, too. According to Payscale and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, sports medicine physicians earn between $150,000 and $250,000 per year. And the field is growing: while the ten-year forecasted growth rate for physicians is 7%, we can assume the growth rate for sports medicine physicians is much higher. We believe so because of the tremendous growth rate of other sports medicine practitioners, which is 22% for physical therapists, 19% for athletic trainers, and 11% for dieticians and nutritionists. 

So, are you interested in becoming a sports medicine physician? It is one of the longest career paths of any sports medicine professional, but it’s worth it. 

Here are the steps required to become a sports medicine physician:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree in any field. While it’s suggested that you major in a related subject, medical schools accept students with every type of undergraduate degree. 
  • Go to medical school for a Doctor of Medicine (MD) degree. Typically, these programs last four years. 
  • Once you finish medical school, you must pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination.
  • After passing the examination, you must complete a three-to-four-year residency program with a general physician. These years are vital to your success as a sports medicine physician. Without them, you’ll know the content but not the context, so take these years seriously.
  • Next, you must complete a one-to-two-year fellowship with a sports medicine physician. Again, this experience is crucial. It will teach you the many tasks of sports medicine physicians, the average day in the life of a physician, and introduce you to the profession that you’ll work in for the rest of your life.
  • Lastly, obtain a Certificate of Added Qualifications in sports medicine. With this certificate, you can prove your worth to your patients and colleagues. 

As you can see, the career path isn’t short. It’s around 12 to 13 years at the least. But it’s a well-compensated job, and it’s fulfilling. Very few sports medicine physicians wish to change their career paths because of the dynamic, low stress, and highly paid nature of the job. 

Orthopedic Surgeon

Orthopedic surgeons operate on people with musculoskeletal injuries and disorders. For example, an orthopedic surgeon may operate on you if you break your femur, suffer from bone cancer, tear your meniscus, have scoliosis, and more. Orthopedic surgeons work more in diagnostics and treatment than prevention; sports medicine physicians are more focused on prevention. 

More often than not, orthopedic surgeons are highly specialized. Some of the more popular concentrations include pediatric orthopedics, orthopedic trauma, spine surgery, and joint reconstruction. 

Orthopedic surgeons are the highest-paid sports medicine professionals. In fact, orthopedic surgeons earn one of the best incomes of any profession in the world. According to Payscale, the average orthopedic surgeon earns a base salary of $381,537 per year, plus a $20,574 bonus, $4,000 in commission, and a $10,174 profit share. That’s a total of $416,285 per year!

Are you considering orthopedic surgery as a potential career? Here’s what you will need to do in order to have a successful career in this field:

  • Obtain a bachelor’s degree. As sports medicine physicians, a relevant degree such as biology and chemistry is recommended, but you can choose any undergraduate degree before applying to a medical program. 
  • Medical school comprises a four-year track, two of which are in a classroom setting and two of which are in a clinical setting. After completing all four years, you will obtain a Doctor of Medicine (MD) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (DO) degree. While enrolled in medical school, you must pass two National Board examinations. 
  • After graduating, students enroll in a four-year residency in orthopedic surgery. This residency will send you to several hospitals and private practices, exposing you to different techniques, specialties, and contexts of the orthopedic surgery profession.
  • If you wish to specialize in surgical sports medicine or another specialty, you should enroll in a one or two-year fellowship in the subspeciality. 
  • Finally, you must obtain board certification through the American Board of Orthopaedic Surgery or the American Osteopathic Board of Orthopedic Surgery. Orthopedic surgeons must obtain a recertification every ten years.

And voila! It’s a long path to becoming an orthopedic surgeon, but it’s not objectionable to say that you’ll be more than fairly compensated for your efforts. Note that orthopedic surgery is a relatively stressful position, so this career is not for the faint of heart!

Physical Therapist

Physical therapists are the most general trained doctors in the sports medicine field. Physical therapists work as diagnosticians, rehabilitators, and guides for effective treatment plans. They may send a patient to an orthopedic surgeon, and they may also act as the on-the-field physical therapist.

For example, if you have runner’s knee, a physical therapist will begin their plan by diagnosing the issue. Then they will find a treatment plan, usually involving physical rehabilitation and sometimes strenuous exercise, to help you build strength in your legs. A physical therapist will always analyze a patient’s medical history, which will inform them of the proper rehabilitation measures.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, physical therapists earn an average of $89,440 per year or $43.00 per hour. Entry-level physical therapists may earn less than this number, while experienced and specialized physical therapists can make far more. 

Physical therapy is also the most robust sports medicine field, and it employs more people than any other profession within sports medicine. There were 247,700 physical therapists in 2018, and the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates this number will grow by 54,200, or 22%, by 2028. Physical therapists can easily find careers, work in any place in the country, and find a stable clientele. 

If you want to be a physical therapist, you must follow these steps:

  • First, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in a relevant field. Consider studying anatomy, physiology, biology, or chemistry. You may get accepted into a physical therapy graduate program without these classes, but the program may require you to take additional prerequisite courses.
  • After graduating with a bachelor’s degree, you must enroll in a Doctor of Physical Therapy program. This program is usually three years, and it combines traditional classes and clinical experiences. Alternatively, you may enroll in a combined seven-year bachelor’s and Doctor of Physical Therapy program. Note that you must complete your degree from a program accredited by the Commission on Accreditation in Physical Therapy Education. Otherwise, you may not be able to gain a license in many states.
  • After graduating, aspiring physical therapists must enroll in a clinical residency program. These programs usually last for one year, and they orient prospective physical therapists to the working conditions, doctor-patient relationships, and the details of the profession that one cannot find in a classroom setting. 
  • Finally, physical therapists must obtain licensure. To do this, graduates must pass the National Physical Therapy Examination, which is administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy. Depending on the state you wish to practice in, you may need to complete additional training and exams, like criminal background checks and law exams.

Then, a physical therapist may begin their career! Note that 33% of physical therapists work in private practices, 26% work in public and private hospitals, 11% work in home healthcare services, 7% work in nursing facilities, and 5% are self-employed. Regardless of where you want to work and who you want to work with, the physical therapy field has space for you.

Dieticians and Nutritionists

Dietitians and nutritionists play a crucial role in the training and day-to-day regimens of athletes, children, and the elderly. Different body types, sports, and daily activities require specific diets. A sumo wrestler and a 70-year-old suffering from diabetes don’t have the same diet. 

Dietitians and nutritionists are the first and last stops for all things food. If you’re deficient in protein, they will recommend healthy protein-heavy foods like fish, chicken, eggs, and plant-based proteins. If you lack iron, they will recommend lentils, beans, spinach, and apples. Whatever your lifestyle is and wherever your body needs to go to reach optimal shape, nutritionists are the most trusted advisers to get you there. 

Many dietitians work one-on-one with clients in a private setting. Other nutritionists deliver speeches to schools, work in a group-based environment for a sports team, in a nursing home, or work behind-the-scenes, crafting educational materials for schools and hospitals. On average, nutritionists earn $61,270 per year or $29.46 per hour.

There are three essential types of nutritionists:

  • Clinical dietitians and nutritionists provide medical nutrition advice in hospitals, care facilities, and private practices. Often, clinical dieticians work with patients with specific needs, conditions, and goals. For example, one clinical nutritionist may work with patients that have diabetes, while another may exclusively with work athletes or children.
  • Community nutritionists work with governmental and non-governmental organizations and clinics. Usually, they design programs that inform the public on healthy eating practices, how to combine a budget and dietary needs, and the importance of health. 
  • Management dieticians work in the food industry in schools, prisons, and other places that feed dozens or hundreds of people. They design meals, budget for the organization, and oversee staff.

The path to becoming a nutritionist is far shorter than that of traditional doctors. If you want to become a nutritionist, follow this path:

  • First, you must obtain a bachelor’s degree. Because of the short preparatory path for nutritionists, aspiring dietitians must obtain a bachelor’s degree in a relevant field. Some viable options include clinical nutrition, dietetics, public health, and public health nutrition.
  • While a graduate degree isn’t required, a nutritionist may obtain an advanced degree to prove their credibility, obtain administrative jobs, and learn more about their chosen profession. 
  • Before practicing independently or with an organization, nutritionists must complete an internship with dietitians. These internships are usually 500 hours, but they may be up to 1,000 hours or more.
  • Unlike for physicians and surgeons, there is no nationwide credential to become a certified nutritionist. Instead, the requirements vary state by state. Some require licenses, while others don’t. Nutritionists should do everything to prove their worth, including obtaining a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist credential. 

The work environment for dietitians is as follows: 30% work in private and public hospitals, 14% work in government, 10% work in elderly care facilities, 9% work in outpatient care centers, and 6% are self-employed.

Exercise Physiologist

Exercise physiologists work with individual patients, groups, and governments to design fitness programs that increase cardiovascular health and flexibility, rehabilitate injured athletes, perform fitness and stress tests, and measure blood pressure.

Exercise physiologists work with injured athletes, but they also work with the elderly. Have you seen photographs or videos of geriatric groups dancing in the pool? Their guide is most likely an exercise physiologist. 56% of exercise physiologists are self-employed workers, 27% work in public and private hospitals, 5% work out of private offices and clinics, 3% work within governmental agencies and organizations, and 2% work in the offices of physicians. 

So, do you want to become an exercise physiologist? The career path is as follows:

  • Exercise physiologists must obtain a bachelor’s degree. They can major in exercise physiology, kinesiology, exercise science, or a related field to gain the skills and experience required of exercise physiologists.
  • Many exercise physiologists then gain a master’s degree, but this second step is supplementary. It’s only necessary if you want to work in administrative roles, learn more about the field, or marginally increase your pay. Both your undergraduate and graduate degree must be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs.
  • Unlike the other professions on this list, licenses aren’t required by most states to practice this profession. Some states are in the process of implementing a licensing requirement, but Louisiana is the only state that requires a license as of now. But you should have the CPR certification and Basic Life Support certification to practice the profession.

The average exercise physiologist earns $49,170 per year. The breakdown within exercise physiology is as follows:

  • Exercise physiologists working in the government earn $72,440 per year
  • Those working in hospitals earn $49,390 per year
  • Exercise physiologists working in the offices of physicians earn $48,200 per year
  • Those working out of private practices earn $45,190 per year.

As you can see, exercise physiologists working for the government are the highest earners by a large margin. However, they only comprise 3% of the exercise physiologists in the United States, so jobs are competitive. If you want to gain an advantage over your competition, obtain a master’s degree, continue your voluntary education, and gain as much experience as possible. Then, you may just be among the 3% that gain an esteemed job for a governmental agency.

Athletic Trainer

Athletic trainers are the non-medical counterpart to sports medicine physicians and physical therapists. They are the first responders for injured players in elementary, high school, university, and professional sports teams. While athletic trainers can’t carry a severely injured athlete through every rehabilitative step, they are perhaps the most prepared professionals to immediately diagnose and treat injuries.

Athletic trainers are the people on the field assessing injuries and helping injured players walk off the field. They also bandage and tape athletes who have been given medical clearance by certified medical professionals. If you are still struggling to understand the role of an athletic trainer, look at it this way: athletic trainers are to physical therapists what EMTs are to doctors in the ECU. 

Athletic trainers have additional duties besides acting as first responders. Often, athletic trainers also work on an administrative level in sports teams and school settings. They may help with creating budgets, crafting and implementing policies, and planning athletic programs. 

Athletic trainers earn an average of $48,480 per year, but income depends on the setting in which an athletic trainer works. Those who work in public and private schools earn $52,660 per year, athletic trainers working in hospitals earn $47,880 per year, those who work in fitness centers earn $46,890 per year, and those who work in private practices earn $45,240 per year.

The path to becoming an athletic trainer is as follows: 

  • At a base level, athletic trainers must obtain a bachelor’s degree, preferably in athletic training. These programs will teach students the essentials for becoming an athletic trainer and include classes in anatomy, biology, nutrition, and physiology.
  • At this point, athletic trainers can technically begin their careers. They can earn more money and attain better positions, however, with a one-to-two-year master’s degree in athletic training. Remember to only complete your studies at schools approved by the Commission on Accreditation of Athletic Training Education.
  • Finally, athletic trainers must obtain a license in their state. With a couple of exceptions, every state requires athletic trainers to obtain a license, which is granted after passing an exam designed by the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer. 

As other professionals on this list must take exams to maintain licensure, licensed athletic trainers must occasionally take continuing education courses through the Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer. 

Athletic trainers work in many sectors. 37% work in private and public schools, 17% work in hospitals, 16% work out of private offices, 7% work in fitness centers, and 6% of athletic trainers are self-employed workers.

Ready to Begin?

As you can see, sports medicine is a dynamic, lucrative, and in-demand field. It’s a satisfying job for professionals, and is a sector that athletes couldn’t live without. And the sports medicine field is growing quickly. The statistics are encouraging on all fronts, and as long as you’re willing to invest the time and money in school and clinical experiences, you’ll be paid off and then some. 

Below, we’ve compiled a list of the best athletic training degrees in the nation. Each of the following programs is notable for its high-quality education, affordable tuition, and promising career outlook for graduates. 

10 Best Online Associates in Sports Medicine 

  1. Allen County Community College
  2. Northeast Mississippi Community College
  3. Casper College
  4. Butler Community College
  5. East Mississippi Community College
  6. Garden City Community College
  7. College of the Sequoias
  8. College of the Canyons
  9. Treasure Valley Community College
  10. University of Akron Wayne College

5 Best Online Master’s in Sports Medicine

  1. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences
  2. Indiana State University
  3. Moravian College
  4. Temple University
  5. University of Idaho

5 Best Online Doctorates in Sports Medicine

  1. A.T. Still University of Health Sciences
  2. Indiana State University
  3. Moravian College
  4. Temple University
  5. University of Idaho