Understanding the role of doctors in the lives of professional athletes

India’s triumph at Tokyo Olympics 2020 has stirred up interest in sports in the country again. In fact, there is a 38% rise in queries regarding sports-related diet and nutrition, injuries, and psychology on Practo over the last one year. Sports, however, is no child’s play. For an athlete, events like these serve as an acid test of their ability to distill years of training into a final sprint. 

Even as their innate drive for perfection sets them up for success, a crucial ingredient in their journey is the coterie of people – including healthcare professionals – who enable them to thrive in their sport.

“Specialized training, especially for a tournament, increases the health risks to an athlete, especially from potential injuries,” says Dr Bharat Kumar B, Founder and CEO of Medifit Clinic and Kinesis Sports Clinic, who also specializes in sports medicine on Practo. “Sports medicine specialists not only assist athletes in appropriately recovering from an injury, but also help prevent one from developing in the first place through proper nutrition and coaching,” he adds.

Sports medicine in India

Sports medicine is a specialized form of medicine that is designed to improve the performance of an athlete. In fact, many sports medicine therapists have a background in athletic training, and are thus, uniquely qualified to provide assistance across a wide array of sport-related needs of an athlete. Dr Bharat also graduated from being a sports enthusiast to specializing in sports medicine, working with elite Indian athletes today.

“Sports medicine may be at a nascent stage in India, but there is a growing acceptance and recognition for the role healthcare professionals can play in the performance of an athlete,” he says, adding, “It often entails accompanying athletes during competitions and practice sessions, and working with their entourage of multidisciplinary teams in supporting their health and performance goals.”

Based on their specific expertise or breadth of responsibility, a typical day for a sports medicine specialist would include observing, analyzing, researching, and documenting different aspects of the athlete and their activities, and combining it with clinical medical practice to evaluate their potential and improve their performance. 

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Furthemore, even as prevention and diagnosis of injuries is a crucial part under this, optimized nutrition and conditioning is just as important.

“The level of dedication and commitment an athlete has to give towards fitness and proper nutrition is on another level,” says Dt Prerana Solanki, registered Dietitian and Clinical Nutritionist. “While it’s important for athletes to maintain a healthy diet throughout the year, getting the right nutrition support post a performance is extremely important to ensure effective muscle generation and prevent muscle soreness,” elaborates her partner Dt Sonal Dhanuka, who, like Dr Prerna, practices on Practo.

Tending to the injuries of an athlete

Medical intervention for athletes consists of reactive, injury-focused service, along with all its concomitant disciplines, making the role of healthcare professionals in sports critical. Under this, sports injuries can often keep athletes off the field for long spells, making it imperative that athletes get back into form as safely – and quickly – as possible with the help of medical professionals. In fact, fitness-related queries on Practo grew by 200% over the last one year, indicating that people are reaching out to sports medicine specialists – both online and offline – more frequently today.

The most common sports injuries include sprains, bruises, tears and bone fractures, and may involve soft tissues like nerves, ligaments, tendons, muscles, and fascia. While primary care sports medicine doctors diagnose, treat and manage musculoskeletal and other medical problems, orthopedic sports medicine doctors specialize in operative treatment.

“Elite athletes endeavor to train and compete even when injured, and hence, only qualified and experienced medical practitioners should be involved in maintaining their health and performance. This also includes managing their long-term health with the help of a nutrient-dense diet and lifestyle modifications,” says Dr Silky Mahajan, Sports Nutritionist on Practo. “Improving diet alone should be a collaborative and continuous process that takes into account the best medical advice for long-term gains,” she adds.

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This cannot be achieved in isolation and entails collaborating with the athlete’s larger team in discussing treatment, rehabilitation plans, injury-preventive practices, and protocols for other health-related issues. All this leads to a balanced approach to training, especially when the athlete is unwell or injured. 

Physical and mental wellness of athletes

Athletes are increasingly seeking mental health support, indicating the pressure that comes with competing and choosing a career in sports. In fact, nearly 40% of all queries for sports medicine on Practo came from people in the age group of 18 to 30 years, who wanted to know more about diet and nutrition, injuries, as well as counselling for psychological distress. 

“There is an urgent need for proactive engagement with athletes to facilitate consistent training and psychosocial aid to maintain their health and well-being while minimizing stress,” says Dr Bharat.

For a professional athlete, daily stressors include lack of access to training facilities and equipment, lack of social support, and reduced income. For some, these may lead disturbed sleep, eating disorders, and even coping mechanisms such as smoking and increased alcohol intake. Athletes having pre-existing conditions may experience worse outcomes.

Adds Dr Bharat, “International athletes are typically trained to give their 125% in competitions. Since they are prepared for tougher situations during the training period itself, competitions may seem easy to some of them. In contrast, Indian sports people are stretched to 80% of their ability, and expected to give a 100% in competitions. Thus, in order for these athletes to build their mental fitness and overall confidence, the approach to coaching itself must change.”

If not taken care of, lack of nutrition, injuries and stress can impact a professional athlete’s performance. Thus, there is an urgent need to examine and diagnose health-related issues early on with the help of a comprehensive medical support team.

As we remember sporting legends – particularly Indian athletes who brought laurels to the country in the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics 2020 – this National Sports Day, let us take a moment to honour the multidisciplinary medical team that has enabled them to thrive and give their best.


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