Imaging of US Olympians may help to prevent future injuries

Dan Anderson
Dan Anderson

In the summer of 1984, I piled into a car with a half-dozen high school friends and rode to East Los Angeles College, site of the Olympic field hockey event. It wasn’t that I had a great affinity for field hockey, but it was one of the only events of the XXIII Olympiad for which I could get a ticket. I don’t remember who played or who won that summer afternoon. And it didn’t matter; what mattered was that I was witness to the Olympics in my hometown.

I didn’t get to see Carl Lewis or Mary Decker or—much to my young heart’s dismay—Mary Lou Retton. But even if it was a pretty obscure event, it was something just to touch history. Somewhere on my bookshelf is a scrapbook with my canceled ticket.

I had another brush with Olympic history recently. The US Women’s Soccer team was practicing not far from my office, and I was invited to learn about their partnership with GE Healthcare on an advanced ultrasound study taking place during this month’s games in Beijing. GE and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) are scanning and monitoring athletes in several sports to study sports injuries and prevent injuries from occurring in the first place.

In addition to the women’s soccer team, researchers are using ultrasound to study weight lifters, wrestlers, and boxers.

Marnix van Holsbeeck, MD, left, and Tony Bouffard, MD, perform a base ultrasound exam on Olympic soccer medalist Heather Mitts.

On my visit, doctors with GE and the USOC were capturing baseline ultrasound scans of the players’ knees, shoulders, ankles, and hips. “We want to know whether old studies matter in terms of new injuries,” said Marnix van Holsbeeck, MD, one of the project’s researchers who works at the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

“We want to discover whether something asymptomatic is important. Currently, less than one-third of injuries are symptomatic. What’s the borderline of ‘normal?’ “

The work is already paying off. Heather Mitts, a 2004 Gold Medal winner and a 2008 hopeful, has experienced calf cramps throughout her career. She and her trainers always assumed she wasn’t hydrating enough. “For years and years, I’ve been getting cramps, and thanks to this ultrasound, I learned that I can’t really stretch my calf muscle as much as it needs to be stretched,” she told me. “So I’m doing things like extra massage, extra stretching.”

That’s precisely the kind of information that will help prevent injuries, according to Patrick Meyers, global project manager for the LOGIQ i ultrasound system GE has used on the athletes.

“The Olympians are the elite athletes. The research we think can be applied to the high school athletes, college … the goal is to take from what we learn and kind of spread the gospel of how this study can help,” he said.

For athletes like Mitts, understanding better how their bodies are performing will certainly make for a better single performance and may contribute to a longer career. “In the back of our minds, it kind of puts us at ease. A lot of times we’ll push ourselves even when we know we have a slight injury. Here, we can check on it in a couple of minutes and take a day or two off and rehab a bit instead of just going out and pushing it.”

Results of the ultrasound studies could help in any orthopedic case down the line, Meyers said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re an elite athlete or a couch potato.”

Good thing, too, because when the Olympics are on television this month, I’ll definitely fall into that latter category.

Dan Anderson
Editorial Director