Medical aspects of professional tennis

Dr. David Geier

Note: Dr. David Geier is an orthopaedic surgeon and Director of MUSC Sports Medicine. He serves as Chief Tournament Physician of the Family Circle Cup. Each day of the tournament, he will write a daily article for the Post and Courier and Family Circle Cup.

Among the most common questions I receive every year during and after the Family Circle Cup deals with the medical coverage of the players and what injuries I see. According to WTA rules, as tournament physician I cannot discuss specific medical information, but I can talk about the nature of being Family Circle Cup physician and the injuries and illnesses of the players in general.

By rule, there can only be three physicians providing care for the tournament's players. The goal of this rule is to ensure continuity of care for the players and not have different doctors every day.

If a player sees one doctor early in the tournament and another physician days later and gets different advice, confusion and doubt can adversely affect the player. I have been honored to serve as the orthopaedic surgeon for the musculoskeletal injuries, and two medical physicians treat medical issues like heat illness, breathing difficulties, etc.

I've been at the Family Circle Tennis Center the entire week, day and night, and the medicine physicians come as needed. In general, musculoskeletal injuries like sprained ankles and shoulder inflammation can occur at any time, so I feel more comfortable being on site.

Travel and the tour schedule play important roles in the nature of the players' injuries and illnesses. The women travel almost the entire year without breaks, so they have little time to rest their bodies. Issues such as tendonitis, which might normally go away with a week or two of rest, might linger playing as much as they do. And believe me, despite what some people say to me, I would argue that these athletes fight through a tremendous amount of pain.

The players' schedules also make addressing normal medical issues difficult.

They are away from home for months at a time, so gynecologic and other health maintenance issues often fall to physicians unfamiliar with the players rather than their normal primary care doctors. And despite the terrific physical conditioning of these athletes, they are still susceptible to upper respiratory infections and gastrointestinal issues like everyone else.

Fortunately for the players, the WTA Tour has an excellent staff of physical therapists and massage therapists who travel with the Tour. Unlike the doctors who change at each tournament, the hard-working WTA staff ensures continuity of care by treating and rehabbing injuries of the players throughout the year. And while the Tour has used standardized medical forms for each physio or doctor encounter, it plans on introducing an electronic medical records system to improve documentation and continuity.

Fans watching the Family Circle Cup should applaud the skills and athleticism of the players. But they should also appreciate how difficult it is for players and the medical staff to keep these stars in top condition.

Read more about tennis injuries and other sports medicine topics at Dr. Geier's blog.