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Cutting-edge techniques get injured stars fit faster

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Stephen Smith, Rehab coach at Leinster, with the Anti-Gravity treadmill

Stephen Smith, Rehab coach at Leinster, with the Anti-Gravity treadmill

Stephen Smith, Rehab coach at Leinster, with the Anti-Gravity treadmill

If Leinster's Eoin Reddan had broken his leg in the 1920s, chances are he may not have had surgery. Instead, he would have been splinted and told to rest up and let nature take its course.

And he probably would never have returned to the level of performance that he had grown accustomed to.

Today, the techniques available to help injured players are in a different league and Eoin will be helped to rehabilitate by a multi-disciplinary team of specialists using the best medical knowledge and incredible advances in technology. Instead of being told to relax for a few weeks, he will in fact be expected to work harder than those who are available to train and play.

He will commit to at least 10 training sessions a week in comparison to the six to eight of his fully fit team-mates.

Rapid developments in sports medicine in the last 20 years have seen the days of the magic sponge and water bottle become a distant memory.

Diagnostics

High-performance athletes now have almost instant access to a variety of diagnostics such as MRIs and C-T scans, gait analysis (analysis of movement mechanics to identify movement discrepancies that may increase the risk of injury) – and some of the world's leading surgeons are based in Dublin.

Ice-packs and compression bandages have been replaced by devices such as the Game Ready and Normatec MVP, which ice and pneumatically compress the injured site to pump away swelling and stimulate the healing process.

The arrival of space-age technology from Nasa is playing a large role in this process. The anti-gravity treadmill is one of the key pieces of technology used to return Eoin to running before he is capable of supporting his entire bodyweight. He can walk or run at a chosen pace at differing amounts of bodyweight from 20-100pc.

In the early stages of rehabilitation, his feet may barely touch the ground, as the emphasis will be on movement. This helps to improve range of motion, while protecting and strengthening the injured area and preventing muscle wastage.

In the past, the natural progression would be to exercise an injured athlete in a pool where they would weight-bear around 30-50pc bodyweight before returning them directly to 100pc.

However, pool running simply is not the same movement pattern and does not utilise the muscle groups and joints in the same manner as normal running.

With the anti-gravity treadmill, the ability to gradually increase the weight an athlete runs at can also help to decrease recurrence of injuries and decide when to return an athlete to pitch-based running activities.

Video analysis has also been a huge step forward for sports science, and Eoin can expect to be recorded when running and performing rehabilitation exercises. Free software 'apps' such as 'Ubersense' have brought the use of video analysis to smartphones and tablets.

This process allows coaches to assess discrepancies in movement patterns which may have resulted from injury and may impede recovery or result in re-injury.

The advances do not stop here as literally every step Eoin takes can now be monitored and scrutinised.

The emergence of global positioning systems (GPS) in sport have brought analysis to a different level.

The GPS fits snugly into the jersey and can give us a multitude of figures, including metres covered, top speed, number of runs at different speeds, number of collisions and impacts, as well as the toll this takes on their body.

This allows sports medicine practitioners to design progressive rehabilitation sessions. Using GPS helps to reduce time lost due to injury and provide a faster and more seamless reintegration to full participation.

Prevention, however, is still better than cure and we're only beginning to scratch the surface of injury prediction, which is a particularly interesting area in sports science.

Over the next few years, we're likely to see even more advances in this area, leading to reduced injuries, keeping athletes on the pitch and prolonging their careers. Good news both for players and sports fans alike.

Irish Independent