Athletics has been in the news lately, with the recent Olympic Games. For a fortnight, we watched as triumphant athletes celebrate the highest highs and ascended the medals podium to claim their reward. But as skiers tumbled down mountains, snowboarders navigated the half pipe, sometimes within inches of their life, and figure skaters were plagued with back injuries, we also witnessed some painful lows.
We pay close attention to these elite athletes every two years, during both the summer and winter Olympics, but there are athletes in our midst pushing their bodies to the limit at the college and professional level year-round.
Imagine playing 82 games a year as a professional basketball player, three to four games per week, sometimes all in a different city, between September and April. It’s a rigorous, grueling schedule.
Late last year, Penn Medicine entered into a partnership with the Philadelphia 76ers to be the team’s official healthcare provider, putting two physicians here at center court in the efforts to keep our hometown hoops team healthy.
Through the partnership, Brian J. Sennett, MD, chief of Sports Medicine and vice chair of the department of Orthopedic Surgery, will lead the team’s new medical staff as Head Team Physician & Orthopaedic Surgeon.
Dr. Sennett works with a multidisciplinary team from Penn Medicine, representing the departments of Orthopaedics, Sports Medicine, Family Medicine, Infectious Diseases, Dermatology, Cardiology, Neurology and Neurosurgery, Ophthalmology, Oral-maxillofacial Surgery, Pulmonology, and Otorhinolaryngology.
Rahul Kapur, MD, a Family Medicine and Sports Medicine physician, also became the team’s Chief Medical Physician, handling all the team’s non-orthopedic medical needs. With Dr. Sennett, he attends about 90 percent of all Sixers home games, and is available to the players, their families, the coaching staff, and team executives.
Together Drs. Sennett and Kapur and the entire Penn team work toward ensuring the players have quick and safe recoveries from on-court injuries, and they use their advanced medical guidance to help prevent future injuries.
One of Dr. Kapur’s main roles is to make sure all players are medically “cleared” for play at the start of each season. “They must meet the NBAs standards to be able to compete at this level,” says Kapur. “They must pass a head-to-toe physical, cardiac and pulmonary screenings, an eye exam and a concussion screening. The NBA requires that all players pass a stress test, a fairly rigorous standard, even for a professional athlete.”
For reasons not entirely clear to medical experts, recent literature has shown that the relative risk of sudden cardiac death is highest in basketball players as compared to the athletes in other professional sports. “We take players’ cardiac evaluations very seriously,” Kapur says.
According to a 2010 study, a 17-year review of the injuries and medical conditions most affecting NBA athletes, lateral ankle sprains were the most frequent orthopaedic injury, found in 13 percent of the 1,094 athletes in the study, followed by patellofemoral (knee) inflammation (12%), lumbar strains (8%) and hamstring strains (3%).
This is probably not surprising with all the wear and tear on the body, and pressure on the knees as a result of the starting, stopping, pivoting and jumping required of the world’s most elite basketball players.
Everything outside this realm is Dr. Kapur’s focus. For example, if a player breaks his nose, gets poked in the eye, has a skin infection, a rash, nausea, vomiting or is sick with a cold, he cares for the player, or coordinates advanced care with the necessary Penn Medicine specialists.
Both Drs. Sennett and Kapur arrive early to every game and handle all the players on both teams’ pre-game medical needs in the team’s training room. They also stay late to deal with any post-game injuries. For primary care needs, Dr. Kapur also sees patients—team members or their families—in his office at Penn.
His NBA duties continue into May, all the way through the NBA draft at the end of June, then a short respite before the season gets into full gear yet again.
What might seem like an equally grueling schedule for player and physician, for Dr. Kapur, it’s a dream job. “I’m a family medicine physician, fellowship-trained in sports medicine and I get to work with athletes are at the pinnacle of their career and who want and need to be at the top of their game, day in and day out. I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” he says.
“It’s exhausting, but tremendously exciting, so much so that it doesn’t seem like work,” he says. He is quick to credit the players, the entire medical team, including the team’s two full-time trainers, as well as the Sixers executives and leadership staff with making a tough job fun.
Dr. Sennett echoes this sentiment, saying, “Partnering with the Sixers is a terrific opportunity for us to work with some of the nation’s premier athletes, providing them with the highest level of care possible so they are able to continue performing at their very best.”