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The Road to Recovery

Basketball with band aids

Professional athletes push their bodies to the limit in pursuit of big moves, and big points. Unfortunately, that can sometimes lead to big injuries. Gordon Hayward of the Boston Celtics is now dealing with one of those injuries after dislocating his ankle and fracturing his tibia. "He will probably be immobilized for eight weeks," said David Petron, MD, orthopedic specialist for University of Utah Health and CMO and Head Team Physician for the Utah Jazz. "It's unlikely he will return this season."

When an athlete is injured the clock starts ticking towards muscle atrophy. It's a use it or lose it situation. This is especially true for those at the top of their game. So, trainers and physicians try to keep that muscle mass in the best condition possible. "Once you lose muscle mass it is extremely hard to get back - anyone who has ever gone to the gym can tell you it doesn't happen overnight," said Travis Maak, MD, Head Orthopaedic Physician for the Utah Jazz. "So, even if you can't put weight on one part of the leg you want to be working others like the quadriceps and hamstrings to maintain that mass."

Muscle mass is not the only concern. There are also worries about loss of joint mobility while the athlete may be bedridden recovering from surgery. All joints should be put through a full range of motion as much as possible to avoid stiffness and loss of range of motion. "It's hard to get the motion back once you lose it," said Maak. "Unless you are focusing on maintaining the motion of all of the joints you are at risk of losing mobility."

As recovery progresses athletes are encouraged to put weight on the impacted body parts. They may try increasing exercising in an underwater treadmill—which takes the weight of the legs while still allowing for a range of motion. Anti-gravity treadmills—which take weight off the lower body with a series of fans—are another option. "There are a lot of options available now to rehab after injury," said Petron. "With all of them it's important to not push too hard and potentially cause re-injury."

Recovery from an injury is not only about the body, but also the mind. An injured athlete has lost their outlet and can suffer from feelings of depression and isolation as a result. Such a change in mental health could impact the speed and totality of recovery. "It's important that they have someone to talk to," said Petron. "Also, it's important they stay tied to the team so they still feel a part and are reminded of what they are working towards."

Coming back from a catastrophic orthopedic injury is a long road, but it is possible. With proper rehabilitation it is possible for the impacts of the injury to be all but noticeable. However, that isn't to say that an athlete will be better than ever as many vow to be during recovery. "There really is no surgery that we do that makes someone better than they were before," said Petron. "But if they rehab properly they should be able to return to full range of motion and do all the things they could before."

"If Gordon maintains his muscle mass and rehabs properly there is no reason he won't return to the game," added Maak. "He'll have to work hard, but he can do it."