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Screening for Sports Participation


Paul L. Liebert

, MD, Tomah Memorial Hospital, Tomah, WI

Last full review/revision Jan 2020| Content last modified Jan 2020
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Athletes are commonly screened to identify risk before participation in sports, In the US, they are reevaluated every 2 years (if high school age) or every 4 years (if college age or older). In Europe, screening is repeated every 2 years regardless of age.

Cardiovascular screening

Screening for all children and adults should include a thorough cardiovascular history, with questions about

Physical examination should routinely include blood pressure in both arms, supine and standing cardiac auscultation, and inspection for features of Marfan syndrome. These measures aim to identify adults as well as apparently healthy young people at high risk of life-threatening cardiac events (eg, people with arrhythmias, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or other structural heart disorders).

Testing is directed at clinically suspected disorders (eg, exercise stress testing for coronary artery disease, echocardiography for structural heart disease, electrocardiogram [ECG] for arrhythmia or long QT syndrome). Routine stress testing in the absence of symptoms, signs, or risk factors is not recommended. European guidelines differ from American guidelines in that a screening ECG is recommended for all children, adolescents, and college-age athletes.

Other screening measures

Noncardiovascular risk factors are more common than cardiovascular risk factors. Adults are asked about the following:

  • Previous or current musculoskeletal injuries (including easily triggered dislocations)

  • Arthritic disorders, particularly those involving major weight-bearing joints (eg, hips, knees, ankles)

  • Concussions

  • Asthma

  • Symptoms suggesting systemic infection

  • Heat-related illness

  • Easy bruising or bleeding

  • Seizure

Two populations at risk for injuries are commonly overlooked:

  • Boys who physically mature late are assumed to be at greater risk of injury in contact sports if competing against larger and stronger children.

  • Overweight or obese people are at increased risk of musculoskeletal problems because of excess body weight and associated forces on the joints and tissues. One risk is overuse injury and soft-tissue inflammation, particularly if people increase intensity and duration of exercise too rapidly. A long-term risk is osteoarthritis affecting weight-bearing joints. Another risk may be injury due to sudden stops and starts if they participate in activities that require jumping or high levels of agility.

Adolescents and young adults should be asked about use of illicit and performance-enhancing drugs. (Visit the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency web site.)

In girls and young women, screening should detect delayed onset of menarche. Girls and young women should be screened for the presence of the female athlete triad (eating disorders, amenorrhea or other menstrual dysfunction, and diminished bone mineral density). Two questions are validated screening measures for eating disorders:

  • Have you ever had an eating disorder?

  • Are you happy with your weight?


There are almost no absolute contraindications to sports participation.

Exceptions in children include

Exceptions in adults include

Relative contraindications are more common and lead to recommendations for precautions or for participation in some sports rather than others, for example:

  • People with a history of frequent and easily triggered dislocations or multiple concussions should participate in noncollision sports.

  • Males with a single testis should wear a protective cup for most contact sports.

  • People at risk of heat intolerance and dehydration (eg, those with diabetes, cystic fibrosis, sickle cell disease or trait, or previous heat-related illness) should hydrate frequently during activity.

  • People with suboptimal seizure control should avoid swimming, weight lifting, and, to prevent injury to others, sports such as archery and riflery.

  • People who have asthma need to monitor their symptoms closely.

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