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Returning from injury: Genetics, hard work, or performance enhancement?

Last year, Ray Lewis and Adrian Peterson made news by quickly returning to high levels of play following serious injuries. Are these gifted athletes uncommonly determined... or is there more?

Returning from injury: Genetics, hard work, or performance enhancement?

Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis speaks during an NFL Super Bowl XLVII football news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in New Orleans. Lewis denied a report linking him to a company that purports to make performance-enhancers. The Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
Baltimore Ravens linebacker Ray Lewis speaks during an NFL Super Bowl XLVII football news conference on Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2013, in New Orleans. Lewis denied a report linking him to a company that purports to make performance-enhancers. The Ravens face the San Francisco 49ers in the Super Bowl on Sunday. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

We all marvel in the extraordinary recovery of athletes following injury.

Ray Lewis returned to play less than 3 months following tricep repair surgery. Adrian Peterson nearly broke the single season NFL rushing record less than a year after ACL reconstruction. Kyle Lowry played point guard for Villanova less than 4 months following his own ACL reconstruction. 

How is this possible?  Do these gifted athletes just work harder during rehab?  Do their bodies heal faster than the rest of us?

Or could it be the fear of most sports fans in the 21st century? Could these be using performance enhancing agents to speed up their recovery? Let’s discuss the factors and controversies that contribute to a speedy recovery in more detail. 

Ray Lewis and his tricep. Ray injured his tricep on October 14th, 2012. He had surgery three days later and played in his first game on January 6th, 2013. That’s less than 3 months after injury—an unheard of turnaround time. There are many factors contributing to his extraordinary recovery. 

First and foremost, Ray took a great risk at returning that soon.  His chance of re-tear was very high as the surgical repair takes at least 3-4 months to be even close to being strong enough to withstand the forces involved in football. I’m sure that his rehab was rigorous in regaining the strength needed to block and tackle in the NFL. One would think his age would be a detriment to a speedy recovery, but it doesn’t seem to have been a factor. 

The big question: did the deer antler spray help? There is little scientific evidence that IGF-1 (insulin-like growth factor) has any performance enhancing or injury recovery benefit. And IGF-1 is not affected when delivered through a spray. In Ray Lewis’ case, he probably beat the odds of re-injury by playing as early as he did vs. having an amazing recovery aided by performance enhancing supplements.

Adrian Peterson.  He is still the talk of the town when it comes to returning from ACL surgery. In his first season back, he nearly sets the NFL rushing record. 

Adrian’s first game back was 9 months after his ACL surgery. Although his level of play was astonishing— many players never quite get back to their pre-injury level—the time frame that he returned to play in is within the normal range of 9-12 months. Was there anything more than hard work and determination that contributed to his recovery? A good surgeon and rehab staff helps. But probably more than anything is what makes him such an amazing athlete is the same thing that gave him such a remarkable recovery… great DNA. There are no rumors or whispers about deer spray or any other performance enhancing substances with Peterson, just old fashioned hard work.

When we look for an unbelievably quick recovery from ACL rehabilitation, we don’t need to look any further than the Main Line and former Villanova basketball star Kyle Lowry.  Kyle tore his ACL the summer before his freshman year at Villanova. He had surgery on September 17th and played in his first collegiate game on December 31st. That’s just 3 ½ months after ACL reconstruction! Not only did he return to play so quickly, but he had a great season and was named to the Big East All-Rookie team as well as being tabbed Philadelphia Big Five Rookie of the Year. Kyle has gone on to have a successful NBA career without any inkling of a previous ACL injury.

In Lowry’s case, his recovery can be based almost exclusively on his genetics as even performance enhancing substances couldn’t have produced such as a rapid return to basketball.

Genetics, hard work, or performance enhancement?  How do these athletes return so quickly? Even though in Ray Lewis’ case there are questions regarding hormone usage, all the deer antler spray in the world won’t get players back on the court and field as quickly as these players returned. These players get back to sports on the accelerated track due to their genetic makeup, excellent surgeons and rehab staff, hard work, and willingness to play in a time frame that puts them at higher risk for re-injury.

Justin Shaginaw is lead therapist and coordinator for Sports Medicine at Aria 3B Orthopaedic Institute.


Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.

Justin Shaginaw, MPT, ATC Athletic Trainer for US Soccer Federation; Aria 3B Orthopaedic Institute
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Brian Cammarota, MEd, ATC, CSCS, CES Partner at Symetrix Sports Performance
Ellen Casey, MD Physician with Drexel University Sports Medicine
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Michael G. Ciccotti, M.D. Head Team Physician for Phillies & St. Joe's; Rothman Institute
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Peter F. DeLuca, M.D. Head Team Physician for Eagles, Head Orthopedic Surgeon for Flyers; Rothman Institute
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Justin Shaginaw, MPT, ATC Athletic Trainer for US Soccer Federation; Aria 3B Orthopaedic Institute
Thomas Trojian MD, CAQSM, FACSM Associate Chief of the Division of Sports Medicine at Drexel University
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