How injured Olympic athletes heal quickly enough to perform
Training, motivation and medical support help Olympic athletes succeed despite pain
It isn’t advances in medicine helping to push injured Olympic athletes like Mark McMorris back onto the slopes so quickly but their resilience, drive and training, Canadian doctors say.
When snowboarder Mark McMorris won Canada’s first medal of the Sochi Games, a bronze in slopestyle just two weeks after fracturing a rib at the X Games, he says the big challenge was returning to riding.
"It was hard physically, but even harder mentally," McMorris says. "After five days of riding, in the final day, I was finally focused on strictly snowboarding and zero per cent on the injury."
When he was initially injured, McMorris says he rode to the bottom on adrenaline.
"By the time I got to the hospital, I could barely get on the bed, or laugh or talk." His treatment? Tylenol and acupuncture.
Landing a corkscrew in Sochi was "just a little painful," he recalls. McMorris advises children who are injured to find out exactly what the problem is, get advice from specialists and wait until they’re fully healed.
"In an Olympic situation, I just didn’t have the time," he says.
Faster, higher, further
As Olympic athletes go faster, higher and further, they take greater risks that can lead to more traumatic injury and overuse injuries, says Dr. Julia Alleyne, chief medical officer for the 2015 Pan Am/Parapan Am Games.
It isn’t so much modern science that helps athletes return quickly when injured during competition and keep going, but their own motivation, says Alleyne, who has worked with Canadians during five Olympic Games.
We’ve seen ... over and over again that an athlete will do a wonderful competition and then at the finish line collapse.- Dr. Julia Alleyne
"There’s really no medical intervention there," says Alleyne. "That is totally the athlete’s resilience, their drive to compete, their ability to override pain signals and how they cope in the moment. We’ve seen that over and over again that an athlete will do a wonderful competition and then at the finish line collapse. On the podium be limping."
It’s because the elite athlete has dealt with the immediate pain differently than the general public.
"Athletes are able to do things because of their training, their motivation and support of the medical team that's around them that the rest of us wouldn't even consider as an option," explains Dr. Ian Cohen, a sports medicine specialist at the University of Toronto.
How they do it
Alleyne pointed to three innovations that have helped elite athletes get back to competing faster:
- Broadening the focus beyond the injured area itself, such as not letting leg strength go just because of a shoulder problem.
- "Staging" return to play and ramping up the pace of intense rehab integrated with training. "In an Olympic village, I may ramp them up twice a day where we’re going through five stages in three days, whereas in a non-competitive athlete, we may take a week to 10 days to go through those stages."
- Taking a broader approach to pain management beyond pharmaceuticals to include recovery time, support for the injured area, acupuncture and other drug-free methods for pain management. Not letting pain cause fear is an another key aspect.
As for what’s on the horizon in the next few years, Alleyne says different protein and glycogen injections are being evaluated with the goal of shortening healing times.
With files from CBC's Marijka Hurko