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Aug. 16, 2001 -- Football, basketball, soccer, field hockey, swimming -- 'tis the season when team sports crank up, which means 'tis the season for the school sports physical.

The time-honored physical -- required by virtually all schools -- is designed to determine whether a student should participate in team activities, says Patrick Harr, MD, FABFP, a private practice family doctor in Maryville, Mo., and team physician for a local high school and Northwest Missouri State University for almost 30 years.

Whether a primary care physician, the family doctor, a general internist, or a pediatrician performs the physical, "make sure it's done one-on-one -- not with everybody lined up in the school gymnasium," he tells WebMD. "You can't do a thorough physical that way."

In addition to obtaining a good medical history -- of the athlete and his/her family -- the physical gives doctors a good opportunity to "get as much information as possible about risk behaviors: sexual behaviors, drug use, steroids, performance enhancers," says Harr.

Athletes can be disqualified from playing if a doctor suspects any dangerous behaviors, he says. "If you've seen them six months ago, you can get a pretty good idea if they're taking steroids," Harr tells WebMD. "Kids will do anything to be competitive."

What about those well-publicized cases of young athletes dying suddenly?

"It always catches people off guard," says John P. Kugler, MD, a family doctor and chief of primary care at Fort Belvoir, Va. "Most of the time, there is no sign that there is a problem. That's the scary part of it. It is very devastating and very perplexing."

But sometimes a physical can help determine a person's risk for sudden death. The athlete's physical build can indicate Marfan's syndrome, one heart abnormality that can cause sudden death. "It's the tall, thin, lanky athlete who has excessive flexibility," he says. "Some prominent basketball and volleyball players have had this disorder with devastating outcomes."

Giving the doctor as much information as possible -- about family medical history, and about the athlete's history -- is the best prevention of sudden death, Kugler tells WebMD.

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