After playing Division 1 soccer at Boston College, Kelly C. McInnis, DO, turned her passion for sports into a career as a sports physiatrist at Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine, where she is the director the of the Women’s Sports Injury and Performance Clinic.
Dr. McInnis is a team physician for the Boston Red Sox, the New England Patriots, and Harvard University. She’s also a team consultant for the Boston Ballet, Boston Bruins, and New England Revolution.
In this Q&A, she discusses her work caring for athletes at all levels, the future of the Women’s Sports Medicine Program, and collaborating with her colleagues in orthopaedic surgery.
McInnis: There is much less attention and research focused on female athletes compared to their male counterparts, whether it’s female-specific sports, like softball, or sports played by both sexes, like soccer.
We know there are clear differences in anatomy and physiology between men and women. Women experience hormonal changes during adolescence, pregnancy (during and post-pregnancy), and menopause. We need more research to understand how these changes impact physical condition and performance. Female athletes also have physical differences that put them at greater risk for certain hip injuries, knee injuries like ACL tears, and bone stress injuries.
We have much to learn about sex differences in several other arenas of sports and exercise medicine, including mental health, nutrition, sports cardiology, performance enhancement, and injury prevention. With a deeper understanding of how these differences contribute to injury and illness, we can begin to provide better care for female athletes at all levels.
McInnis: Professional athletes have unique needs. The demand of their sport is elite-level. It is their job and livelihood. Because of this, injuries are high-stake. We individualize needs based on sport, position, stage of career, personal goals, etc. We have a comprehensive approach to evaluation, management, and secondary prevention. This is similar to what we do for the amateur athletes, where patients are just as passionate but stakes are not quite as high.
McInnis: I am part of a team of specialists that provides game day medical coverage for the Boston Red Sox during spring training and the regular season. We address medical issues and injuries that occur acutely on the field of play. Our priority is always the health, safety, and well-being of our athletes. We advocate for our athletes, always with their best interests and safety in mind, regardless of the landscape or the importance of the game or season.
McInnis: When treating professional athletes, we utilize all the experts on our team to deliver the best possible care. We consider state-of-the-art, evidence-based treatment tools, as well as cutting-edge interventions, to provide safe and expeditious return to play. This is the very same approach we take for our amateur athletes.
I really enjoy taking care of recreational athletes and even just passionate exercisers. We know that exercise is medicine in many ways. Treating athletes of all levels and active individuals of all levels is what I really enjoy.
McInnis: We’re trained to treat all musculoskeletal injuries and impairments, as well as neurologic injuries and impairments. For my orthopaedic counterparts, their primary goal is to restore anatomy. So they're trying to surgically reconstruct or restore anatomy that's been injured, as opposed to the physiatrist, where the primary role to restore function.
We're looking at the whole person, the whole picture. If I'm examining a patient with knee pain, I'm looking at the hip, the spine, the foot and ankle. All these body structures play a role in how the knee performs.
McInnis: We work well together and provide complementary care, whether we're seeing a patient after surgery or before surgery. Ninety percent of sports medicine care is nonoperative, so we discuss all nonoperative management options and exhaust this treatment if appropriate. And we expedite care to the appropriate surgical specialist if surgery if warranted or nonoperative treatment fails. Surgeons rely on us for our nonoperative expertise and often send us patients for interventions such as injection therapy.
An athlete may see me and they may not know if it's a surgical issue or not. And through the evaluation process and attempting some nonoperative treatment measures, they may ultimately end up needing surgery. By the time I send the patient to a surgical colleague, their expectations are set. This helps my surgical partners in terms of efficiency and developing a relationship with the patient.
Sometimes I'll see that patient after surgery as well, alongside the physical therapist. I counsel them on getting back to their desired activities and sports.
McInnis: The field is relatively new, with a bright future. We plan to lead the advancement of Women’s Sports Medicine in clinical care, research, education, and community engagement. Women continue to make significant strides in participation and performance in athletics. We aim to advance our care, in parallel, and ultimately provide the highest level of comprehensive, multidisciplinary care.
I am incredibly fortunate to be part of an exceptional group of providers at Mass General Brigham Sports Medicine. It is our athlete-centered care and our teamwork that makes this a special place to work.