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Sports medicine goes high-tech

By David Williams
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(CNN) -- When players get hurt, they're often open to new medical technology that gets them back in the game more quickly and sometimes allows recovery from what used to be career-ending injuries.

"High-performance athletes are always looking for an edge and looking for anything that may allow them to get back sooner after an injury," said Dr. Michael Brunt, the team surgeon for the St. Louis Blues hockey club.

"If an athlete gets appendicitis or something like that we can take it out with a scope instead of having to do an open incision and get them back to activity much sooner than they would have otherwise," said Brunt, who also consults with the St. Louis Cardinals baseball team and the National Football League's St. Louis Rams.

"I think that's probably true for a lot of different things we do, whether it's general surgery, hernia surgery or orthopedic surgery, things ... are being done in a less invasive fashion that allows athletes to recover more quickly and get back to playing sports sooner."

Brunt said today's players are in better shape, which is a mixed blessing.

"There's been a lot of emphasis on strength training in recent years, and we actually think that may be one of the reasons why we see more groin problems than we used to, particularly the sports hernia-type injuries," he said.

"There's a much bigger emphasis on strength training, and they don't necessarily pay attention to the balance and strength and flexibility that they need to prevent injuries."

Blues trainer Ray Barile said year-round conditioning was almost unheard of in hockey until about five years ago.

"Before that, the offseason was the offseason and no one thought about their conditioning in the offseason," he said. "That's obviously changed dramatically, and players now commit a majority of their offseason to training and fitness."

He said many players now spend $10,000 to $15,000 each year to hire personal trainers to work with them in the offseason.

"My players will look for competitive advantages in their training regimes, and they'll talk to NFL players; they'll talk to Major League Baseball and track and field athletes to get ideas," Barille said.

Technology has also given some athletes an opportunity to get an unfair advantage.

The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency spends $2 million a year on research to make sure that Olympic athletes aren't getting an unfair advantage.

"We're committed day in and day out to following new advances in science that may be great in curing anemia and liver problems and kidney problems and cancer and those sorts of things," that athletes could use to cheat, said USADA General Counsel Travis T. Tygart.

Undetectable performance enhancers like gene therapies, human growth hormones, designer steroids and designer erythropoietins, or EPOs, which increase the body's production of oxygen-carrying red blood cells, are on its radar, Tygart said.

"We have a team of experts, we've got two Ph.D.s on staff, so we stay as ahead of those issues as possible and direct our research into directions that we think are issues, but we don't necessarily preview what that is, to tip people off to where we're headed," he said.

Technological improvements in medicine have often helped players on and off the field.


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