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Our Health

November 15, 2013

Why do pro athletes recover before you do?

WASHINGTON — It's a mystery: When we twist our ankle playing tennis, it can take weeks to heal, but when a pro athlete does it, he often misses barely a beat.

Take an NBA game last season between the L.A. Lakers and the Atlanta Hawks. Kobe Bryant was pushed in midair, and he landed with a thud on the court. He clutched his ankle and writhed in pain. A few hours later - after X-rays found no broken bones - his coaches announced he was out indefinitely with a bad sprain.

Bryant sent out a tweet about his recuperation and how he was going to spend his time watching movies and sleeping: "Compression. Ice. Django. Zero Dark Thirty. This is Forty and 1 hour of sleep."

Yet 36 hours later, Bryant was back on the court.

Did he have a miraculous recovery? Not necessarily. While professional athletes are in terrific shape, which helps when they get injured, they also have advantages rarely available to the weekend warrior: an instant medical response and a physical therapy regimen that kicks in quickly, that operates practically around the clock and that continues even after the athlete is back in the game.

"Most of the time, the pros get a prompt assessment and treatment by experienced trainers, and what may take a recreational athlete weeks to recover [from] may take a pro only a matter of days," said Benjamin Shaffer, an orthopedic surgeon in Bethesda, Md., who is head team physician for the Washington Capitals and assistant team physician for the Washington Wizards.

Granted, some professional athletes speed their return to competition by overusing painkillers, anti-inflammatories and other prescription drugs and by succumbing to pressure from teams to play through injuries, as The Washington Post reported in a series of stories last spring.

But for many pros, it is the hours of intensive daily attention from highly experienced physical therapists, along with specialized rehabilitation equipment and exercises, that make their rehab and yours quite different.

A cadre of professionals uses electric stimulation, compression sleeves, anti-gravity treadmills and individually tailored exercises to speed the repair of the body. These techniques and devices can mean the difference between an early return or weeks on the bench, Shaffer said.

While physicians and trainers involved with professional teams avoid talking about injuries to specific players, here's a look at what they do to get an athlete up and running again.

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