Olympic Athletes Prone to Injury Off Camera, Orthopedic Expert Warns

Last-minute intensive practice at Sochi puts winter Olympians at higher risk


WALNUT CREEK, CA — With the kickoff of the Winter Olympics, elite athletes will spend the next two weeks dazzling millions of TV viewers worldwide with aerial acrobatics on snow and ice, yet Matthew Pecci, MD, a sports medicine physician at Muir Orthopaedic Specialists in Walnut Creek, says Olympians are in greater jeopardy of injury in off-camera practice than during televised competition.

“That’s primarily because practice at the Olympics goes on five or six 6 days a week, multiple hours a day, where competition might be only three heats spread over two days,” says Pecci, who has frequently treated injured skiers and snowboarders and worked with Boston University’s men’s and women’s ice hockey teams for more than10 years.

Training accounted for 54 percent of injuries in the 2010 Winter Olympics, according to a study published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine. A whopping 89 percent of figure skating injuries and 88 percent of snowboard half pipe injuries occurred in training. Some of those injuries are due to athletes trying to perfect new tricks or hit top speeds as their training progresses toward competition, explains Pecci.

“Traumatic ACL injuries and concussions are hard to avoid. But Olympians—just like weekend warriors—can best prevent competition-ending injuries by keeping their body in top condition through strength, weight and endurance training,” says Pecci.

The fewest injuries occur in Nordic events, where speeds are slow and contact rare. Even Nordic ski jumping, which looks death defying, has the same injury rate as curling, with 4 percent of athletes.

But if you’re a female snowboard cross competitor, watch out: seven out of 10 were injured in the last Winter Olympics. They come out of the gate jockeying for position and bumping each other out of control. Throw in the speed, turns, jumps and the number of heats they run and the injuries pile up, says Pecci.

For the first time, the U.S. Team will have a physician specifically designated to evaluate athletes for concussions. Olympic athletic trainers do a good job of evaluating concussions, but they can be in a difficult position, according to Pecci, who specializes in concussion management.

“They’ve been with that athlete for a long period and know what it took to get to that point, so it can be hard for them to say, You’re done, you can no longer compete in the Olympics,” says Pecci. “Having someone impartial to identify concussions and be a voice of reason in terms of management can certainly be helpful.”

The following statistics from the 2010 Olympics study serve as a guide of what injuries to expect in the 2014 Winter Olympic Games.

Most likely Olympic competitors to be Injured

Female snowboard cross: 73%

Men short track skating: 28%

Female Alpine aerials: 26%

Female bobsled: 24%

Female Alpine cross: 23%

Female ice hockey: 23%

Men bobsled: 17%

Men ice hockey: 16%

Men Alpine cross: 15%

Female figure skating: 15%

Men Alpine aerial & snowboard half pipe: 14%

Most injury-prone sports

Ice hockey: 18.5% of athletes injured. The speed and contact are the obvious risk factors resulting in more contusions, sprains and lacerations, most often involving the face, wrist, thigh and knee.

Alpine and snowboarding: 15.3 % injured. The twists and turns at high speeds are most likely to result in sprains, contusions, fractures and concussions.

Bobsled: 11.5% injured. Primary injuries are contusions, strains and concussions.

Skating: 10.9% injured. Top injuries are lacerations, contusions, strains and tendinitis, with these injuries involving the thigh, knee and lower leg.

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About Muir Orthopeadic Specialists

A regionally recognized orthopedic practice located in the San Francisco Bay Area, Muir Orthopaedic Specialists is comprised of an expert team of physicians and providers with a variety of specialty focuses. Using state-of-the-art techniques in orthopedic medicine, Muir Orthopaedic Specialists restores mobility and comfort in musculoskeletal injuries, treating the foot, ankle, knee, hip, spine, shoulder, elbow and hand. Muir Orthopaedic Specialists facilities are located east of San Francisco in Walnut Creek, Brentwood and San Ramon. For more information, please visit www.muirortho.com.