Professional experimenting

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Pro athletes have their every move scrutinized. Their actions on and off the field of play are dissected play by play and followed by the press and fans alike. However, it may be what happens behind the closed doors of the operating room that increases their true value. In the last few days, surgeons will be looking into and fixing different parts of the human body, using procedures that were perfected on athletes, trying to get them back to elite performance.

The Mets’ Carlos Delgado will have hip arthroscopy to repair a torn labrum, a rim of cartilage that helps stabilize the hip. Matt Tuiasosopo of the Angels will get bone spurs and arthritis cleaned out of an elbow while St. Louis’ David Freese gets scar tissue removed from an ankle and Boston Bruin Phil Kessel has a labrum fixed in his shoulder.

Once upon a time, the arthroscope was used to look inside a joint and while it helped with diagnosis, the ability to fix things was pretty limited. A large joint like the knee became the laboratory for how to trim and sew cartilage, repair ligaments and clean out bone spurs and other arthritic changes. As equipment and skills got better, other joints were able to be attacked. Without having to widely cut open a joint, the recovery and recuperation times were dramatically reduced and athletes had their seasons and careers resurrected.

Orthopedic surgeons were pushing the boundaries technology and skills just like their athlete patients were doing in the arena or on the field. But while the fans knew they couldn’t run, jump or throw like their heroes, they could benefit from the medical advances. Less than a decade ago, hip scoping was just a dream. Chronic hip pain debilitates millions of people but little was available aside waiting to qualify for hip replacement. With MRI scans being able to find cartilage tears scarring and bone spurs, the orthopedic surgeon may be able to clean up the hip joint surfaces and let the joint do its job again. Athletes, who were motivated to anything to get back to the game, allowed surgeons to find new surgical techniques and physical therapists to develop rehab programs to cure injuries that hadn’t been able to be addressed.

Headlines about last night’s game usually capture the fans’ attention. Perhaps they might read a human interest story about their favorite player, but sometimes the news that may affect them personally may be hidden in the weekly injury report. Experimenting on the elite pro may be one of the unsung benefits of sport, though most athletes would prefer to be remembered for their accomplishments on the field and not in the OR. Just ask Tommy John.

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