Sports medicine deserves more recognition

Carolina Hurricanes goalie Eddie Lack is treated on the ice for an injury during a game against the Detroit Red Wings in Raleigh, North Carolina on Monday March 27. A trainer or sports doctor must be readily available at all times for their athletes, especially during a competitive game. (Gerry Broome/AP Photo)

When someone answers the question, “What do you want to do with your biology major?” with “I want to go into sports medicine,” people tend to make assumptions about the field and write it off. 

It will most likely not be a sports doctor that cures cancer. It will not be a team doctor that discovers how to regenerate a heart from a spinach leaf, or how to transplant a human head. In many ways, however, the job of sports doctors is far more difficult. The world of sports changes every day and doctors need to be able to change with it. 

The world of sports, especially professional sports, is drastically different than what it looked like 10, 15 or 20 years ago. Players are bigger, faster and stronger. Equipment has changed and, with it, the whole game. 

Let us look at the game of hockey, as the changes in the past decade have been significantly notable. In the 1970s-80s, shoulder pads worn by hockey players were small, thin garments with little plastic to help protect the player wearing them. Throwing a body check in that era meant physical punishment for both sides, so players tended to shy away from big body checks thrown at full speed. 

Today, shoulder pads are large, tight fitting and sturdy. Players hardly feel these big impacts on their shoulders, thanks to the design. These shoulder pads turn the player that is wearing them—moving at 30 miles per hour—into a weapon. 

Sports doctors today are seeing impacts that resemble that of the force of a brutal car accident. Slow motion technology shows that targeted impacts in contact sports like football and hockey resemble crash test dummies in Subaru commercials. Sports medicine no longer means taping up knees and setting broken fingers. It now must encompass things like the treatment of serious head injuries and ligament repair and transportation. 

Advancements in the sports medicine field have not been restrained to just contact sports. In baseball, pitchers are throwing harder and stats like bat speed and exit velocity give us a clear idea as to the damage a baseball can do. While fans desire a faster, stronger, more entertaining game, this opens the door to more danger and sports doctors need to be able to keep up. 

Perhaps the most interesting thing about sports medicine is the research and development that has been done in the past decades. Doctors have done extensive research and have developed new technologies in terms of equipment to keep the game moving at this speed. New helmet technology has appeared for contact sports like hockey and football. Tommy John surgery for baseball pitchers has been perfected to allow maximum longevity for some of the league’s best players.

So while sports medicine needs to adapt to a changing game, it also fosters it. It allows the games and athletes to become bigger, faster and stronger in pursuit of a more entertaining and elite game in all respects. It is the jobs of the individuals in sports medicine to not only protect the players in these games, but to also protect the games themselves.