The Northeastern Huskies may get most of their attention courtside during basketball games or on the ice during the Beanpot hockey tournament, but the Division 1 university is home to nearly 20,000 students in total, including 600 varsity athletes and thousands of club team players.
Keeping these student athletes safe and injury-free is a big job requiring a team led by head team physician, Gian Corrado, MD, who is also the director of emergency sports medicine at Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine. He has been caring for student athletes for 20 years, and in this Q&A he discusses his work with the students who come to Northeastern to compete at the highest level of college sports.
Corrado: I get up on a Monday morning and I start at the hospital to see any significantly injured Northeastern athletes who need imaging or other care. And then, from there, I head to campus to see athletes who have less urgent conditions in the training room and at the health center. I take care of the athletes for both their acute injuries, and their overall health and wellness.
There's a team of us who work with the athletes throughout the process. I collaborate with the athletic trainers, physical therapists, strength and conditioning leads, nutritionists, trainees, fellows, and orthopedic surgeons. I oversee all the care for the athletes, and I manage any medical issues that come up. Maybe there will be someone who needs injections so he can play that night. Or maybe there will be a broken rib, a couple of concussions, or joints that need to be put back into place. You hope there’s nothing more serious.
I need to know each sport well. For example, I need to know what the highest risk for a pole vault injury is or that a rib stress fracture is a common injury for a rower. But I also need to get to know the athletes and build trust with them. They need to know I understand their sport and what they are striving for as an athlete at Northeastern. Not many of them will go pro, but some will, and some will pursue the Olympics. I want them to know I’m managing their safety, but also helping them work towards their potential.
Corrado: In high-impact sports, concussions are common. This is a national concern, but we keep making sure athletes wear helmets and follow the rules to help mitigate the damage done by head injuries. I also see a lot of overuse injuries—running-related injuries, stress injuries to the bones, muscle tears, joint injuries from overextending, joint trauma, and issues affecting every bone in the body from the toes to the skull.
Corrado: Strategize. Once you have pain from an overuse injury or you’ve damaged something, it’s late. But in advance, strategize so you have rest periods when you are involved in a repetitive stress activity like running, rowing or swimming. If you want to mitigate injury, the most important thing you can do is warm up before playing. Take care of your body and stretch. Stretching helps strengthen your body, and it can also help with mental awareness and focus. Meditation has been shown to decrease sports injuries.
Corrado: One concern is over-specialization. We are seeing a lot of athletes who specialize early, and it comes with risks or overuse injuries specific to the sport. For example, elbow UCL (ulnar collateral ligament) are common for pitchers who are not exploring other sports beyond baseball.
There’s a constant balance we’re helping the athletes to achieve between stress and performance, and overuse and injury. If we can’t keep them well, they can’t achieve.
Corrado: If you come to see a doctor at Mass General Brigham, you’re working with the team who treats the pros. As a patient, you can expect the same kind of care that professional and college athletes receive. I care for athletes all throughout their development, from their early stages of youth sports through club sports, to development in college, ultimately to professionals in my work with the Patriots and the Bruins.
Since I see patients at every stage of development, I also understand what’s at risk for each stage. In my work with any athlete, I try to understand their goals and how to help them achieve them, whether you’re a 12-year-old who wants to one day play for the Red Sox, or you’re looking to be recruited for a competitive college team.
Corrado: In my work in emergency medicine, I’ve seen a disproportionate amount of young African American men suffer from sudden cardiac death. There is a lack of a decent screening system, and that inspired me to find novel ways to detect who might be at risk for sudden cardiac death.
What we've found so far is that the history and the physical examination alone are not great tests. They identify people who don't have the problem and miss the ones that do. There’s a big push for doing EKGs on everyone, which has some proponents, but has never been proven to change outcomes. We have developed a system whereby we do a quick ultrasound of the heart, and then use the traditional American Heart Association fourteen-point screening, and a limb-lead ECG to screen athletes in our study.
We have found that we get the information we need, plus a quick look at the heart, that allows us to screen more thoroughly and tease out which athletes are at risk of sudden cardiac death. We’re currently working on a multicenter clinical trial, where we need to review more than 10,000 cases as a next step to bringing this to fruition, to improve the health and outcomes for athletes in the future.