UPMC Sports Medicine Is Changing the Game for Athletes and Non-athletes Alike

By Rachel Jones | Photographs courtesy of UPMC

Dr. Musahl (right) on the sidelines with his mentor, Freddie Fu, MD, chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

Dr. Musahl (right) on the sidelines with his mentor, Freddie Fu, MD, chair, Department of Orthopaedic Surgery

For the last 16 years, Volker Musahl, MD, has been a crucial player on the UPMC team. Currently, as the medical director for the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and an associate professor of orthopaedic surgery, roles he’s served for the last three years, Dr. Musahl works with athletes and non-athletes with knee or shoulder injuries. He’s also the team physician for Mt. Lebanon High School and the co-head team physician for the University of Pittsburgh football team. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s really rewarding and a lot of fun,” Dr. Musahl says.

While he spends half of his week performing surgeries and the other half seeing patients in the office, Dr. Musahl also runs a biomechanics laboratory and conducts a substantial amount of research. When focusing on ACL injuries, he looks at improving surgery, decreasing recovery time, and individualizing treatments for each patient. But the biggest question to answer is what causes repeat ACL injuries. These are not caused by force or contact — so why do some people tear their ACLs and others do not?

“That’s a very puzzling situation,” he explains. “We’ve done a lot of research in the past years trying to figure out if there’s something different in the shape of their bones or in their hormones or their physique or landing patterns. We’ve made some really interesting observations: The shape of the athlete’s tibia and femur bone in the knee have some very distinct features, and those athletes seem to tear their ACLs. Now, our next move will be focusing research on how to detect this and create prevention programs that will help us avoid this, specifically in high-risk athletes.”

“We have developed an ACL technology that can assess rotational knee instability in athletes,” he adds. “It is an iPad compatible software developed here at Pitt. For the past two years, we have preseason-tested our football players and have collected baseline data on their rotational laxity. This will become tremendously helpful should injuries occur.”

The conclusions of this research could revolutionize the world of sports medicine, along with the new findings Dr. Musahl and his team are striving to discover in the area of rotator cuff injuries. Prevalent in athletes and non-athletes over 45 years old, rotator cuff injuries can be healed with surgery, physical therapy, or other treatment methods. But the decision of which route to take isn’t clearly defined.

Thanks to a large grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Dr. Musahl and his co-investigators James Irrgang, PT, PhD, chair, Department of Physical Therapy; Richard Debski, PhD, codirector, Orthopaedic Robotics Laboratory; William Anderst, PhD, director, Biodynamics Laboratory; and orthopaedic surgeon Mark Rodosky, MD, chief, Shoulder Service, can begin studying exactly that and start developing a rotator cuff index that will make for an easier and more efficient way to determine the best treatment for each patient’s specific needs. The five-year project kicks off this month, following 100 patients through MRIs, ultrasounds,  dynamic stereo X-ray assessments, range of motion and strength tests, and their evaluations of each treatment.

Volker Musahl, MD, (right) and Richard Debski, PhD, (left) in the Orthopaedic Robotics Laboratory at UPMC — one of only four such labs in the world and the only one in the United States.

Volker Musahl, MD, (right) and Richard Debski, PhD, (left) in the Orthopaedic Robotics Laboratory at UPMC — one of only four such labs in the world and the only one in the United States.

“We really think this is going to be a very impactful study,” he says. “It’s a collaboration between bioengineering, physical therapy, orthopaedic surgery.”

This collaborative energy fuels the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex and the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex alike, which Dr. Musahl says is a perk for everyone. With orthopaedic surgeons, primary care sports medicine physicians, physical therapists, MRI technicians, researchers, and athletic trainers all under one roof, the melding of everyone’s expertise allows for all-encompassing care, a stronger team to create bigger, brighter ideas, and a comforting environment for patients.

“Of course, it’s also fun for any injured patient to be in the physical therapy area where you may see these professional football players rehabbing right next to you,” Dr. Musahl says with a laugh. “I think that’s what’s really unique about our sports complexes — you have this huge athletic training program, you have all of these schools, universities, and pro teams associated with it. It’s like family. I think the patients really like that. It doesn’t matter if you’re a pro or just a weekend warrior. We take care of everyone the same way.” UPMC Sports Medicine, UPMCSportsMedicine.com.

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