CU Sports Medicine — a multidisciplinary program involving the CU School of Medicine’s departments of orthopedics, physical medicine and rehabilitation, emergency medicine, family medicine, internal medicine, and pediatrics — serves a wide range of patients: from toddlers to seniors, elite athletes to weekend warriors. To help dispel some misconceptions about the field and highlight what sets CU’s program apart from the competition, we interviewed three experts to learn from the pros.
Eric McCarty, MD, is a CU Medicine provider and professor of orthopedics and chief of sports medicine & shoulder surgery. Rachel Brakke Holman, MD, is a CU Medicine provider an an associate professor of physical medicine & rehabilitation specializing in the non-operative management of sports and musculoskeletal injuries. Sherrie Ballantine-Talmadge, DO, is also a CU Medicine provider and an assistant professor of orthopedics who also specializes in non-operative care, offering a unique combination of osteopathic and sports training.
Like many sports medicine professionals, all three come from an athletic background. McCarty played football at the University of Colorado, and Brakke Holman was a collegiate cross-country runner and softball pitcher and remains active with running, hiking, and skiing. Ballantine-Talmadge was a competitive figure skater and is still an avid hiker, skier, and horseback rider. Now, they care for some of the country’s top athletes. Ballantine-Talmadge travels as a team physician with U.S. Figure Skating, while McCarty serves as head team physician for the University of Colorado, as well as the Colorado Avalanche.
What exactly is sports medicine? Is it only for athletes?
RBH: Because the CU Sports Medicine and Performance Center is on the University of Colorado Boulder campus, I get a lot of patients who feel nervous about seeing us there. They say things like, “I'm not a world-class athlete,” or “I don’t play college sports.” But that's only a fraction of who we see in our clinic. The majority of our patients are simply people who are having problems being as active as they’d like to be. For some that might be competing at a high level, and for others it might be skiing on the weekends or just walking two miles around the neighborhood. It’s about identifying musculoskeletal issues that are holding people back from living their life.
What’s the difference between the surgical and non-surgical side of sports medicine?
RBH: No matter which side you’re on, the first step is to identify not only the diagnosis, but also any underlying factors like tightness or asymmetry that may have set the stage for that injury. As a non-operative physician, I think of myself as a musculoskeletal sports-medicine Nancy Drew, trying to piece together all the clues. Over 80% of sports medicine injuries are not surgical, so for those patients we’ll look at non-operative treatments. Then there are some people who walk in the door and I can tell immediately that it's a surgical case. We refer those patients to one of our surgeons right away.
SBT: I'm in non-operative primary care sports medicine, which means my training is in taking care of the athlete literally from head to foot, from a concussion all the way down to a broken toe. I often travel with athletes, so I’m on the road managing chronic injuries like tendinitis and working to control for factors like air quality. When I was at the 2019 World Figure Skating Championships in Japan, the air quality wasn't good, so I made sure the athletes had humidifiers in their rooms. I’m also on the sidelines during competition to address performance issues like shortness of breath or exercise-induced bronchospasms. It's a pretty wide variety!
EM: I treat non-operative injuries, but as an orthopedic surgeon I also perform surgery for certain injuries. My surgical focus is knee and shoulder injuries, although I’ll also treat other areas. But we have some surgeons who are highly specialized and who just do hips or upper extremities like the elbow and shoulder.
What makes the CU Sports Medicine program stand out?
EM: There are three things I think really set us apart. One is patient care. There’s nowhere else in the state that has the breadth of specialties and the depth of experience and expertise across the spectrum of sports medicine. We have several departments that are represented in the CU Sports Medicine program, including orthopedics, family medicine, internal medicine, physical medicine and rehabilitation, and emergency medicine, as well as pediatrics. We cover it all, it’s truly multidisciplinary.
The second is research. We’re interested in innovation and in understanding and improving how we treat patients, so we’re very involved in the research aspect of sports medicine.
The third is education. We’re dedicated to education and teaching the next generation health care professionals, as well as the community in general. We also have a fellowship in sports medicine, which is a big deal.
SBT: Our clinicians are some of the best in the world, and they have tremendous passion for what they do. We get to practice innovative sports medicine here and do things that my colleagues in other parts of the country don't get to do. That’s because our patient population is so invested — they want to do everything they can to stay active.
RBH: I also love the culture of our center. The providers in our clinic know each other really well, we know the physical therapists, the trainers, the staff that works with us at the front desk, and we truly enjoy working with each other. That helps us take better care of patients, because we communicate so well together.
How does a multidisciplinary approach to sports medicine benefit patients?
RBH: We're pretty much a one-stop shop, which makes it easier for the patients to get the care they need. We have non-operative physicians, surgeons, NPs, PAs, physical therapists, athletic trainers, and imaging all under one roof, so once you step through our front door, we can walk you down the path you need to take based on whatever issue you’re dealing with.
SBT: That's one of the things I love the most about what I do, because it's not about me — it's about the team. Take concussions, for example. Our concussion team is outstanding. I can't get a concussion patient better without this team, our physical therapists, and our athletic trainers. It's the true definition of sports: we're all working together and everybody is recognized for their gifts and what they bring to the table.
EM: Everyone within Sports Medicine complements each other, because we all have different skills that work in collaboration to help get people better. Say you have an athlete who gets hurt during a game. If it’s a team I work with, I’ll typically see them immediately. Sometimes it’s severe enough to need surgery, but often it’s something where we can work with one of my non-operative colleagues or the therapists and trainers to treat it without surgery, or at least put off surgery until after the athlete’s season is over.
We also have a lot of crossover with our pediatric sports medicine colleagues at Children’s Hospital Colorado. They address pediatric and adolescent injuries from three or four years old all the way into the teens and 20s.
What are you particularly excited about for the upcoming year in sports medicine?
EM: I’m excited about what we’re doing with biologics — meaning how we utilize the body’s own cells to treat injuries. Two of our providers, Jason Dragoo, MD, and Rachel Frank, MD, are part of the national Biologic Association, and they're seen in the country as leaders in the field. We’re planning to open a biologics center at our CU Medicine Inverness location — the UCHealth Steadman Hawkins Clinic Denver.
RBH: There are two things I’m especially excited about. One is that some of our physical therapists will be offering physiology testing. That's going to be really helpful to our athletes who are working on improving performance and learning how to train more effectively.
The other is that we’re growing! We’re adding another non-operative sports medicine physician, and we're also expanding access by adding more hours from existing providers at the center.
SBT: The most exciting thing for me right now is just being back. It was a challenging year with the pandemic, and not being able to exercise or participate in sports really took an emotional and physical toll on people. We've already seen a lot of different injuries from athletes having to train inside their houses and on different surfaces, and I think we’ll keep seeing those trends develop in the future. Just like we have return-to-play guidelines for concussions, now we have to create those for COVID-19.
Originally published by the University of Colorado School of Medicine