Sports Medicine Career Options and Employment Outlook

Dec 11, 2019

Sports medicine is a broad field containing multiple career paths. Those interested in sports medicine might explore a career as a physician, physical therapist or athletic trainer. The lowest educational requirement for any of these paths is a bachelor's degree, and the highest is a doctorate degree.

Essential Information

Careers in the rapidly growing field of sports medicine focus on preventing and treating sports-related injuries and improving movement and performance not only in athletes, but patients looking for more effective exercise programs, and for disabled patients desiring to expand their physical capabilities.

Sports medicine is provided by an interdisciplinary team of professionals including physicians (medical doctors), physician assistants, physical therapists, occupational therapists, athletic trainers, nurses, and others. Each educational program differs in training requirements, length of training, and scope of practice.

Career Physician Physical Therapist Athletic Trainer
Education Requirements Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine (D.O.) degree Bachelor's degree and Doctor of Physical Therapy (DPT) degree Bachelor's degree
Other Requirements State licensure always required State licensure always required State licensure required in most states
Projected Job Growth (2018-2028) 7%* (for all physicians and surgeons) 22%* 19%*
Median Salary (2019) $230,524** (as of 2019) $87,930* $47,510*

Sources: *U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, **

Career Options in Sports Medicine

There is a wide array of sports medicine career choices. Even the careers of some nurses, nutritionists and dietitians can fall under the umbrella of sports medicine, if those professionals focus on some aspect of fitness or sports. Some of the most common job titles within the field of sports medicine include sports medicine physician, athletic trainer, exercise physiologist, kinesiotherapist and physical therapist.

Sports Medicine Physicians

Both medical doctors and doctors of osteopathy deal with sports-related injuries and illnesses. Medical doctors diagnose and treat patients, prescribe medications and perform surgery. They go to an accredited medical school and earn a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) degree. Osteopathic doctors also diagnose and treat patients, but they take a more holistic approach to medicine and focus on the body's musculoskeletal system. They go to a college of osteopathic medicine and earn a Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine degree (D.O.). Both types of doctors must complete resident training and be licensed to practice medicine.

Physical Therapists

Physical therapists diagnose and treat patients facing a wide array of physical challenges, including sports-related injuries or disabilities. They help restore function and mobility to injured limbs or other parts of the body, relieve pain and try to prevent or limit the effects of disabilities caused by an accident or disease.

Most people entering the profession today need a postgraduate degree in physical therapy from an accredited program, according to the BLS. A list of accredited programs can be obtained from the American Physical Therapy Association. The BLS also notes that physical therapists must be licensed to practice in every state. Though licensure requirements vary, they usually include a degree from an accredited program and passage of the National Physical Therapy Examination.

Athletic Trainers

Athletic trainers diagnose, treat and work to prevent injuries, including sports-related injuries, in patients of all ages. Unlike personal trainers or fitness specialists, athletic trainers are recognized as allied health professionals by the American Medical Association. An athletic trainer usually has at least a bachelor's degree, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), but may also have a master's or even a doctoral degree. Athletic trainers must be licensed or registered to work in almost every state. In California, Alaska, West Virginia and the District of Columbia licensure is voluntary, but recommended for job seekers.

Clinical Exercise Physiologists

A clinical exercise physiologist works with patients to maintain and improve their physical fitness. They focus on the cardiovascular system, and help rehabilitate people who suffer from heart problems or other chronic diseases. Clinical exercise physiologists also develop customized exercise plans and offer sports training guidance and counseling. There can be a difference between being a clinical exercise physiologist and an exercise physiologist. Typically, a clinical exercise physiologist is a certified health care professional with at least a bachelor's degree in exercise physiology and an accumulated amount of hands-on clinical experience. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is one main organization providing a certification as a Clinical Exercise Physiologist, and the American Society of Exercise Physiologists is another.


Kinesiotherapists also focus on the health benefits of exercise. They develop and supervise exercise programs to help people regain their strength and mobility following an injury or illness. They develop therapeutic exercise plans, including aquatic exercise, and help people re-learn how to walk or use a prosthetic limb. The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) accredits degree programs in kinesiotherapy. A kinesiotherapist can gain certification as a Registered Kinesiotherapist (RKT) through the American Kinesiotherapy Association.

Other Certifications

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers sports medicine specialty certifications such as Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) and Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP). The ACSM also offers certifications for exercise specialists who work with cancer patients and people with disabilities. One of the gold standard certifications in the field of working with athletes in a fitness performance capacity is through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) as a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), requiring at least a bachelor's degree. There are other organizations with certifications or specializations that focus on sports performance, such as the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE).

Employment Outlook

According to, the field of sports medicine is booming, with one of the fastest rates of growth of any healthcare field. Sports medicine doctors, trainers and other professionals treat both athletes and non-athletes, which expands the scope of their practices and the number of people they serve.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) predicted job growth between 2018 and 2028 would be 7% for all physicians and surgeons, which includes sports medicine doctors, 19% for athletic trainers, and 22% for physical therapists.

Salary Information

Salaries for sports medicine specialists vary greatly by occupation. According to, the median salary for sports medicine physicians as of August 2019 was $230,524. According to the BLS, median salary as of May 2018 was $87,930 for physical therapists, and $47,510 for athletic trainers.

While there are many career paths within sports medicine, most professionals in the industry will deal with the prevention and treatment of sports injuries. The field as a whole can expect to see above average job growth over the next decade, with physical therapist job growth at the top of the pack. A bachelor's degree is required as a minimum for entry into this field, but candidates may need as much as a doctorate, depending on their intended career path.

Expert Contributor: Anna Szymanski Anna is a college instructor and fitness professional, has a Masters degree in Exercise Science, and is working toward a PhD in Performance Psychology.

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