Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Life as a Red Sox team physician

A behind-the-scenes look at the role team doctors play in keeping athletes in the game

Spring is finally here and the major league baseball season is in full swing. But the 162 game-season can put a lot of wear and tear on ballplayers' bodies. That's why every team has their own team of physicians to make sure players stay in tip top shape. Dr. Eric Berkson, a Mass General orthopedic surgeon, is 1 of 4 team physicians for the Boston Red Sox. Berkson's job is to make sure the players stay healthy and recovery quickly from injury. Here he gives us a behind-the-scenes look at the role team doctors play in keeping athletes in the game.

What is the role of the team physician in major league baseball?

The team physician is normally an orthopedic surgeon who serves as the leader of a group of MDs and caregivers for the team. They work with athletic trainers, physical therapists, nutritionists and other medical specialists, to maintain the health of team -- whether for injuries, colds or preventing injuries.

Does the team physician get to go to every game?

There are usually one or more orthopedic surgeons at home games and one or more internal medicine physicians. They are responsible for providing care -- right before, during and after each game. Unfortunately, we don't get to travel with the team, unless it's for playoff or World Series games.

Do you get a premiere seat in the ballpark?

Major League Baseball rules state that physicians can't sit in the dugouts. That's reserved for the trainers. For an acute injury on the field, trainers are the first responders. Team doctors have seats next to the dugout.

Do you serve as the team physician for the Red Sox and the visiting team?

We are responsible for all the players (home team and visitors), as well as all their personnel, such as managers, coaches and umpires.

How extensive is a players' pre-season physical?

It's the most comprehensive head-to-toe exam you can imagine. There are medical stations with specialists such as cardiologists, ophthalmologists, orthopedists, internists, etc. Players undergo EKGs, X-rays, whatever is needed. Then the head physician evaluates all of this information.

Who are the health professionals on the staff of a major league baseball team?

The orthopedic surgeons lead the medical efforts along with internists who handle everyday care. There are also athletic trainers and physical therapists, strength and conditioning coaches, nutritionists, sports psychologists and massage therapists.

What are some of them most common injuries that you see in baseball players?

We see less acute traumatic injury and more repetitive type of injuries such as rotator cuff, oblique strains, meniscus tears. You can hurt ligaments in your elbows when pitching. We also take care of everyday colds, sinus problems, allergies, aches and pains.

Are there unique pressures being a team physician when your patient is a pro athlete compared to a traditional orthopedic patient?

With a professional athlete there's a lot of money involved. If I can get a player back on the field a week earlier than anticipated, that might make a multi-million dollar difference to the performance of the team. What makes this job exciting is trying to push the limits and still maintain the athlete's career and future prospects.

Is chewing tobacco still a health concern for baseball players?

Yes, and it's an issue we are constantly addressing. We approach it from an educational and public health perspective. Baseball and even some of its records have been tarnished by a suspicion of performance enhancing drugs.

How often are players drug tested?

It's an important health issue, but drug testing gets dealt with at the league level, not by the team physicians. Players are tested on a regular basis, and team doctors educate players when they ask questions, but it's not a big issue for us on an everyday basis.

Good Morning America Health interview with Dr. Tim Johnson and Dr. Eric Berkson
Hitting a Health Home Run: The team physician for the Boston Red Sox on how baseball players stay healthy.

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