Kinesiology vs Sports Medicine: What is the difference?

Kinesiology and sports medicine are two closely related professions that both involve treatment of musculoskeletal injuries and improving athletic performance. However, the scope of practice and specialization of these two health and wellness professions is what sets them apart. 

If you are an athlete or active person with an injury, you may be thinking about seeing a kinesiologist or a sports medicine doctor in Vancouver/Burnaby/near you. During your initial search, you may be asking yourself, what is the difference between the two and which is the right one for me?

Keep reading to find out more about the scope, specialization, and education requirements for these two health professions so you can make an informed decision for your sports rehabilitation.

This is the third blog in the series, so make sure to learn the difference between kinesiologist and physiotherapist, a personal trainer and an athletic therapist for more context on the difference between kinesiology and sports medicine.

Sports medicine doctor treating a client

What is Kinesiology and Sports Medicine?

Before looking at kinesiology vs sports medicine, let’s first find out what these two disciplines are.

Sports Medicine is a focus within the field of medicine relevant to the prevention, treatment, and management of injuries and illnesses related to sports and physical activity.

A sports medicine doctor treats musculoskeletal injuries, that is any injury of muscle or bone, in athletes and active people. This type of medical doctor is very knowledgeable about high performance and competition level sports and how to return to play as soon as possible. Sports medicine also provides support in prevention of injury and illness acquired from sport and physical activity.

Kinesiology is the study of human movement. A Kinesiologist uses their deep understanding of anatomy, physiology, biomechanics, psychomotor behavior, and other fields to improve human function and performance. Kinesiologists use active, exercise based therapy to treat health and performance issues with the aim of optimizing the body’s potential, as well as provide athletic training.

Both practitioners have spent years learning about how the human body moves, and are skilled in therapeutic exercises. The difference is kinesiologists are allied (paramedical) health professionals helping a range of clients improve their movement and mobility using exercise based therapy, and a sports medicine doctor is considered primary care and helps patients by diagnosing and treating acute injury or recurring flare-ups specifically related to sports and athletics. 

As a primary care professional, sports medicine doctors may refer to a physiotherapist or kinesiologist for ongoing rehabilitation or conditioning work.

Where do they Work?

Sports medicine doctors can generally be found in sports medicine clinics or contracted for specific sports teams where they work on the field/gym of that organization. They can work both in the private and public medical sector. 

Professionals at a football field

Sports medicine doctors work very closely with athletic therapists (link to article on AT’s), physiotherapists, orthopedic surgeons, or nutritionists who are often working full-time with a particular sports team and know each player’s history more intimately. 

Kinesiology is practiced in a broader context. Kinesiologists work help clients with sport performance and athletic training but also on long term rehabilitation and general health and lifestyle change for the public. This means that they are not only in clinics and sports fields, but can be mobile and often work in recreational centers, studios, and in clients’ homes. In each setting, Kinesiologists are able to offer recommendations on exercises or techniques which will allow clients to achieve their stated health objectives.

Kinesiology is more general than sports medicine, and kinesiology can be applied to a wide variety of health and ergonomics settings. For example, kinesiologists design ergonomic workstations for offices, ensuring the best physiological health for their employees.

Who do they work with?

Sports medicine doctors work with people of all ages. Not only do they work with professional athletes, they also help young children and teens that participate in sports and physical activity, as well as adults that are active on a recreational level. A sports medicine doctor might even be a specialist in paediatrics.

Sports medicine doctors may also work with people that require them to be physically active for their jobs, such as construction workers, referees, or general labourers. 

The same applies to the discipline of kinesiology. Kinesiologists will work with athletes, folks with medical conditions or disabilities, professionals like lawyers and engineers, people with an injury, aging folks and more. Kinesiology is the study of human movement, so a kinesiologist can help anyone with a body that wants to move better.

What education and certification do kinesiologists and sports medicine doctors need?

Sports medicine practitioners have both a bachelor’s and 3-4 year medical doctor (MD) degree from an accredited university. In addition, they must complete postgraduate training in a medical specialty such as emergency medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation (PM & R) or internal medicine. 

Even though sports medicine is not a specialty such as internal, family, or emergency medicine, doctors in this discipline do acquire additional training for the population that they work with. Sports medicine doctors that work with children may be certified as paediatricians. To work with athletes, doctors complete an additional 1-2 year fellowship solely focused on sports medicine.

The training to become a kinesiologist is shorter thank sports medicine. Kinesiologists require a bachelor's degree majoring in Kinesiology from an accredited university and certification. A kinesiology degree is required by the kinesiology association (or College in the case of Ontario) which allows the kinesiologist to practice in the community.

How do Their Treatments Differ?

Although sports medicine doctors are non-operative, they have a relatively large scope of practice when it comes to musculoskeletal injuries.

Some things that a sports medicine doctor can help you with:

  • Diagnosing your injury by performing physical exams and ordering lab tests/imaging and analyzing the results
  • Advising and supervising athletes with exercise treatment plans and determining readiness for competition
  • Performing procedures such as injections and diagnostic ultrasound

Similarly, a kinesiologist provides personalized and consistent care to help clients reach stated goals. Kinesiologists have an in-depth knowledge of body movement, rehabilitation, and strengthening. The difference between kinesiology and sports medicine is that kinesiologists lead their clients through active treatments such as fitness training and exercise rehab.

Kinesiologist treating client

A Kinesiologist’s treatment program is determined after a thorough assessment including strength, joint mobility and flexibility testing. Using the baseline set during the assessment a kinesiologist will help their client set goals and create a treatment plan to achieve them.

Clients' goals vary from getting in shape or losing weight, to improving their cardiovascular endurance and increasing muscle strength. A kinesiologist will plan a treatment with an active, tailored exercise plan carried out through personal one-on-one or partner sessions and recommended at-home exercises or stretches, similar to a personal trainer. This plan allows clients to reach your goals by independently managing and improving their condition.

Which One Do You Need?

As a performance athlete, or an active person who is suffering from an acute injury on the field, a sports medicine doctor may be right for you. Make sure to check with your family doctor for a referral.

If instead you find yourself dealing with an old sports injury, suffering long term pains or mobility issues, coping with an illness that affects your body’s movement or you’re seeking sports conditioning or better overall fitness, then a kinesiologist is the best fit for you. Not only are kinesiologists specialized to deal with and help you overcome long-term injuries or pains, but kinesiologists will provide you with the tools to improve your own health and to function at your physical peak.

A physiotherapist or an athletic therapist may also suit your needs, so be sure to get a really clear understanding of kinesiology from our Ultimate Guide to Kinesiology here.

References

What is a sports medicine physician and what they do: SGU. Medical Blog | St. George's University | The SGU Pulse. (2022, February 8). Retrieved May 6, 2022

What is the Difference Between Physical Therapy and Physiatry. (n.d.). Aapmr.org. Retrieved May 6, 2022

How to Become a Sport Medicine Physician | CASEM – ACMSE. (n.d.). Retrieved May 6, 2022

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