JOHN DOHERTY: Rapid returns no gift to injured pro athletes

2013-12-23T18:45:00Z 2013-12-24T00:11:13Z JOHN DOHERTY: Rapid returns no gift to injured pro athletesJohn Doherty Times Columnist
December 23, 2013 6:45 pm  • 

For Wednesday’s NBA quintuple-header on ABC and ESPN, the featured game is the Lakers hosting the Heat at 3:00 p.m. But no longer will it be a Kobe Bryant/LeBron James marquee match-up.

Bryant, according to the Lakers, is out for the next six weeks with a lateral tibial plateau fracture in his left knee.

The expected period of inactivity is highly debatable. More on that later.

The immediate question, though, is whether Bryant’s injury is related to the torn left Achilles tendon he suffered just eight months ago. Did he come back too quickly?

One may argue that this time, it is not his Achilles. True enough. However, it is the same leg.

And the facts are these, following prolonged immobilization and non-weightbearing after any leg injury, it takes at least a year to recover fully. It just does.

Throughout Bryant’s recovery, we kept hearing that he was ahead of schedule in terms of motion and strength. Strength of muscle, perhaps, but in hindsight not bone.

Too easily forgotten, I’m afraid, it that bone is living tissue that weakens with disuse and takes much longer to re-strengthen than muscle does.

Then there is long-term wear-and-tear to consider.

Achilles tendon ruptures are the province of those in their late 30s. When injured, Bryant was only 34. Nonetheless, he had played more games than every other NBA player in history, save two dozen. Add in his 220 playoff games, and Bryant moves from 25th to 11th.

Having entered the league at age 18, as opposed to age 22 -- like most of his peers in this category, Bryant is 35 years old by the calendar but his legs are 39. They may simply be out of sprints, stops, cuts, jumps, and landings.

That will certainly be the case if he is rushed back again. Six weeks simply isn’t realistic.

The standard of care for a lateral tibial plateau fracture is non-weightbearing for at least that long. Thereafter partial weightbearing is mandated until 12 weeks post-injury. It will minimally take another 6-9 weeks of rehabilitation for the bone to be strong enough to withstand the rigors of NBA play.

Meanwhile, there is no way to strengthen the brain to withstand the rigors of big hits, especially in the wake of a recent concussion.

NFL sports medics already know that. Yet corners continue to be cut in returning players to action -- only to pay a higher price in the end.

Broncos receiver Wes Welker is the latest example.

Initially injured Nov. 17 against the Chiefs, he was determined to play a week later against his old team, the Patriots. And play he did. Whereupon he was a total non-factor until he was late deciding not to field a punt in overtime. That questionable decision led to the ball striking another Bronco.

The Patriots recovered and kicked a game-winning field goal.

Re-concussed playing against the Titans on Dec. 8, Welker has been sidelined since and probably won’t return until the playoffs. Had he been required to make a complete recovery after the first concussion, the second very well may not have occurred.

While Welker, Bryant, and their teams are professionals and therefore free to make risky return decisions, such conduct frequently backfires and always fails as an example to high school athletes and those treating them.


John Doherty is a certified athletic trainer and licensed physical therapist. This column reflects solely his opinion. Reach him at Follow him on Twitter @JDohertyATCPT.

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