No such thing as a minor injury

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

The frustration of an injury is that no matter how “minor” it can cause problems and not allow a person to do their job. For pro athletes under the scrutiny of the press, fans find it especially hard to understand why a small injury keeps them off the playing field…that is until they, themselves, are hurt.

Marc Bulger, of the St. Louis Rams, broke the little finger on his dominant hand while mishandling the football during a training camp drill. From all reports, the break is not serious and will heal within 2-3 weeks and is being treated by buddy taping his ring and little finger together. This allows the ring finger to act as a splint to help immobilizer the injured area. Unfortunately, it isn’t enough to trick the body to think it isn’t injured. The body reacts by causing nearby muscles to go into spasm to protect the injured part.

For Mr. Bulger it means the loss of grip strength and the inability to throw a football; not the best thing to happen to a quarterback. The grasping power of the hand comes from the hypothenar eminence, the group of muscles located in the palm underneath the ring and little finger. Without these muscles working at peak efficiency, grasp is weakened. Yet people wonder why a pro quarterback can’t overcome the injury. While an elite athlete may have the mental and emotional fortitude to rise above the pain of a broken bone, physiology dictates failure. Fans should try opening a jar, using only the thumb, index and middle finger. Just try…we can wait.

The Bengals’ Carson Palmer is out with a high ankle sprain, where the ligament that holds the attaches to the tibia and fibula, the two shin bones. It is a painful injury that makes it difficult to put any weight on the leg, let alone run or change direction quickly. This injury just like a broken bone activates the inflammatory system of the body causing pain and swelling. The muscles of the lower leg work hard at refusing movement, even when the brain tries to override the physiologic response to injury. Try to run and all you get is a limp. Once again, fans understand the pain and disability of the injury but somehow, perceive that it is different for the players on the field.

In truth, elite athletes are somewhat superhuman when it comes to overcoming the disability of injury. However, it is sport and activity dependent as to what injuries can be compensated for by an elite body. Rib injuries are always tough because breathing is something that needs to happen. Whether bruised or broken, an injured rib makes it difficult for the chest to expand to draw in air. The sharp pain that happens 12-14 times a minute with every breath is compounded by the spasm that occurs in the muscles between the ribs every time they stretch with breathing. Think of a charley horse that happens every 3-4 seconds and imagine trying to move on the playing field. Most people have difficulty getting out of a chair. Minor sprains and strains are routine in the NFL but can eliminate a world class sprinter from a race.

Players on the gridiron or diamond, on the ice or on the track, have made it to the pinnacle of their sport because of talent and also because of good fortune. The sports hero is one who has maximized talent by hard work and by being lucky enough to not have sustained a career ending or limiting injury. The average NFL player will have a career lasting a little more than 50 games. It should remind the fans that even “minor” injuries may have “major” implications.

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