We The North: Canadian Doctors Score Winning Ideas to Keep NBA Athletes Safe

Editor’s note: With the Toronto Raptors in round 2 of the 2017 NBA playoffs, it’s a perfect moment to revisit this story from last year, about a GE Healthcare partnership that’s keeping young basketball players in the game. 

Basketball fever is running wild in Canada this month as the Toronto Raptors advance through the NBA playoffs. And while the game on the court dominates the spotlight, other intriguing scientific developments are taking place behind the scenes. One of these is a collaboration between GE Healthcare and the NBA to fund research projects aimed at improving the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of tendon injuries, or tendinothapy, an ailment that affects basketball players at all levels. More than $1.5 million has been awarded to six projects, including two at the University of Calgary’s Faculty of Kinesiology.

Patellar tendinothapy (also called “jumper’s knee”) is an injury of the patellar tendon, a cordlike tissue that joins the kneecap to the shinbone. It is typically experienced by athletes involved in sports that require a lot of jumping, such as basketball, track and field, volleyball and soccer. The players most affected are often the quickest or best jumpers on the team as they are putting the highest demands on their patellar tendons.

“It’s an overuse injury linked to muscle contraction and the force of hitting the ground repetitively. It’s not something caused by an acute event like a bone fracture,” explains Dr. Brent Edwards, a professor of kinesiology at the University of Calgary. Edwards calls the ailment “insidious.” As he notes, “It affects people over a long period of time. It can be a career-ender for some players.”

Canadian Doctors Score Winning Ideas to Keep NBA Athletes Safe

GE Healthcare and the NBA are funding Edwards’ research on the causes of jumper’s knee, including analyzing the effect of the different sorts of basketball courts. “We’re looking at surfaces and footwear stiffness and trying to determine how they affect the level of stress that the patellar tendon has to contend with.” Edwards is also investigating wearable technology (inserted into an athlete’s shoe or perhaps inside a small band around the patellar tendon) that can measure the amount of tendon loading an athlete is exposed to during competition.

Meanwhile, one of Edwards’ colleagues, Dr. Carolyn Emery, a physiotherapist and Chair of the Sport Injury Prevention Research Centre at the University of Calgary, is delving into other aspects of jumper’s knee. Also supported by the GE/NBA collaboration, she hopes to identify the various risk factors for patellar and other tendon-related injuries in young athletes and assess the impact of basketball-specific training exercises on reducing the occurrence of the ailment.

As Emery explains, jumper’s knee can initially seem like a minor injury and as a result many players will try to ignore the discomfort and continue training and competing. But it’s a serious condition that if not properly treated lead to significant time loss from sport participation. 

Emery’s focus is the incidence of Achilles and patellar tendinothapy in young athletes. There are two parts to the research. The first is identifying why it occurs. “We want to understand the risk factors that are involved, such as an individual’s body mechanics, how often they jump and how much training they do,” she says.

The second aspect of the study is focused on creating exercises and training programs that will reduce the risk of high school aged players developing jumper’s knee. “This will involve balance, technical training, strengthening exercises, and load modification.”

The ultimate goal of the research, says Emery, is to reduce the occurrence of this type of injury in young athletes and increase the overall participation in the sport — something that the both NBA and GE Healthcare have an interest in.

“It’s a great way to leverage our research and increase our understanding of musculoskeletal injuries,” says John Sabol, chief scientist at GE Healthcare. “It also affords the opportunity to directly interact with experts in the field that we would not normally have access to.”

As NBA commissioner Adam Silver notes: “Player health and wellness is our top priority, and the NBA’s research partnership with GE Healthcare is a significant step toward understanding injuries that affect NBA players. Both everyday athletes and elite professionals will benefit from our collaboration.”

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