Hopefully you have been enjoying the World Cup. Leading up to the Finals, you’ve had the chance to root for the USA or your other favorite country, groan at the flagrant fouls and even more flagrant flops, and scream in exultation or agony at the last-second heroics that propel your team to the next round or send them home after an exhausted, extra time finale.
Like millions of soccer (or football) fans around the world, I’m transfixed by the incredible displays of athleticism, but as a physician who specializes in sports medicine, I also have a professional interest in the injury list and projected return of star players who can make an impact on the outcome in Brazil.
One of the most common injuries among football players is the meniscus tear, a knee joint injury that happens when the player’s foot is planted and the knee is twisted. The two menisci in each knee act as sort of knee pads made of cartilage. Sandwiched between the bones of the upper and lower legs, they help stabilize the knee joint. Often they are likened to shock absorbers, evenly distributing weight and pressure across the knee.
Luis Suarez, the Uruguayan star who made headlines after he once again bit an opponent (this time versus Italy, his third time to chomp on an opponent during a match since 2010), suffered a meniscus tear during training for the World Cup that left him out of Uruguay’s opening-game loss to Costa Rica.
But Suarez returned a month after arthroscopic surgery to rally his team in wins against England and Italy, before being suspended for the biting incident by FIFA. Colombia then ousted a Suarez-less Uruguay to advance to the Round of 16.
As a former professional tennis player and physician who has seen some remarkable recoveries among world-class athletes, Suarez’ ability to return to match play is pretty astonishing. There are three stages of rehabilitation that any athlete had to endure. First, the therapy required to reduce swelling, restore normal range of motion and cope with pain. Next comes the proprioceptive drills, the exercises that help promote balance and stability, along with physical therapy to strengthen the quadriceps, hips and core.
Part of the final stage of rehabilitation includes impact exercises, which are normally done very gradually to help an athlete return to competition levels.
The concern for any athlete who tries to return to competition too soon after a meniscus tear is developing degenerative arthritis at an early age, or “blowing out” the knee during play or training. Imagine being hobbled in your 40s or even late 30s. It’s worth noting that Suarez was removed from the field on a stretcher before the end of Uruguay’s victory over England. If he does develop arthritis, stem cell injections or PRP (plasma-rich platelet) injections might help him cope with pain and improve function.
As a world-class athlete, Suarez may have been able to trim off the minimum six weeks of recovery from arthroscopic knee surgery thanks to his amazing conditioning as a professional soccer star in the English Premier League. And the sense of pride and determination that enters an athlete’s psyche when playing for his homeland also has been known to promote a speedier recovery.
Yet there are no real shortcuts for a healthy recovery. A seasoned rehabilitation program is as vital to any athlete’s success as a good coach. We’ll explore the makings of a quality recovery from sports-related injury in the near future.
Until then, viva fútbol!
Dr. Annette “Dr. Z” Zaharoff heads the Non-Surgical Center of Texas, focusing on non-surgical alternatives to relieve pain and repair injuries. A former professional tennis player who competed in the WTC circuit, Dr. Zaharoff remains actively involved with the US Tennis Association. Learn more about her at www.drzmd.com.