Thursday, June 4, 2009

You're not superman

You fall off your bike and break your collarbone, and your doctor tells you to stay off the bike for six to eight weeks. Lance Armstrong falls and breaks his collarbone in multiple places, and he’s back in the saddle in a couple of weeks.

You stub your big toe and the pain has you hobbling for weeks. UNC point guard Ty Lawson jams his and two days later plays 36 minutes.

Why is it that injuries that take the rest of us out of action for weeks, months or possibly forever, only bench elite athletes for a short time? Is their body makeup that superior? Do they have a heightened tolerance for pain? Do they have access to cures of modern medicine unavailable to the rest of us? Are they simply treated differently?

The answer, according to those whose job it is to mend our broken bodies: Yes.

Laparoscopic surgery, which requires much smaller incisions, is one of several medical procedures pioneered to help athletes get back in the game faster.

“Philosophically speaking, sports medicine is something of a space program for orthopedic care,” says Dr. Claude Moorman, director of sports medicine at Duke Health. “Advances gained through those efforts trickle down to all of us.”

One of the more common applications of laparoscopic surgery is quick repair of damaged knees.

“In the ’70s,” says Moorman, previously the team physician for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, “athletes would have what we called ‘zippers’ on both knees” — long, zipper-looking incisions where doctors had gone in to make repairs.

“Very seldom would you have surgery and be back in the same season,” Moorman says. “Now, they’re back playing in two to four weeks.”

Pain toughens athletes

Will Armstrong feel pain in his collarbone as he trains for a three-week race that begins next month? Probably. Was Lawson aware of his big toe during the Final Four weekend? No doubt.

But it didn’t stop them. That, says William Howard, an orthopedic surgeon with the Arnold Palmer SportsHealth Center at Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital, is a large part of what make them Lance Armstrong and Ty Lawson.

“Any superb athlete can handle pain,” says Howard. “When you get to be at that level, you’re a different breed of cat.”

In part, he says, it’s because they’re used to it. To reach that level they’ve had to endure so much pain that it becomes commonplace.

Head injuries take longer

There is one area where advances in medicine have lengthened the amount of time an athlete is benched: concussions.

“With concussions, we used to just wait until we thought your head was cleared,” says Howard.

Today, multiple concussions will end a pro career with no such questions asked. Two Super Bowl quarterbacks — the Dallas Cowboys’ Troy Aikman and San Francisco 49ers’ Steve Young — are prime examples.

But football helmets have been designed to be more protective, and Howard says growing awareness is leading to increased caution at all levels.

Source: from reuters

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