How Diagnostic Imaging Protects Olympic Athletes

The final injury statistics on the 2018 Winter Olympics aren’t in just yet, but previous research shows that diagnostic imaging plays a big role in keeping athletes competitive for the games. Quick assessment of injuries is crucial for effective treatment. This is particularly true in athletics, which subject the athlete’s body to sometimes-extreme stresses. MRI scans, X-rays, and other imaging modalities provide rapid diagnosis for the sorts of injuries often associated with sports.

While we’re still waiting on data from Pyeongchang, there’s plenty to learn from a previous instance of the international games — specifically, the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. Over 11,000 athletes competed that year in more than 300 separate events. Of those top-level athletes, 1,101 of them sustained an injury. Researchers analyzed the treatment methods of these competitors and found that imaging played an important role in the diagnosis process. Doctors associated with the International Olympic Committee, which ran a clinic inside the Olympic Village, performed 1,015 radiologic examinations. Physicians ordered MRI scans forover half of the injured athletes. These scans were instrumental in the following treatment.

The Importance of Diagnostic Imaging in Sports Injuries

Access to diagnostic imaging is crucial in these moments. High resolution images allow doctors to see the extent of an injury in order to quickly determine the best course of action. Without an imaging option, doctors could miss some serious injuries. That’s particularly dangerous for athletes. Olympic contenders might return to their sport with an injury, compromising their bodies and future because of an incorrect diagnosis.

Of course, some athletes refuse to stop even after they are injured. Who could forget Kerri Strug’s infamous second vault run which she landed perfectly with a severely sprained ankle and tendon damage? Or the dive by Greg Louganis, after he hit his head on the board, that secured him the gold medal? These historic moments are dramatic, but they aren’t particularly healthy decisions. When an athlete suffers a bone stress injury, it’s time for the medical professionals to intervene, regardless of whether the patient is determined to push through the pain or decides to rest until fully healed.

Either way, accurate diagnosis is critical. That’s where X-rays and MRI scans are medically necessary.

Olympic Sports That Rely Most on Diagnostic Imaging

It’s true that some sports are inherently more dangerous than others. The 2016 study found that gymnasts utilized imaging the most, followed by Taekwondo, then volleyball. Track and field participants had the highest overall number of examinations. Athletes in these sports sustained the most muscle injuries. And the most common exam was the imaging of lower limbs, with the second most being a scan of upper limbs.

The high number of diagnostic imaging scans in Taekwondo and volleyball came as a surprise to the researchers. Luckily, this type of information will help with future planning for imaging services. The data can also help to explain why certain athletes have a higher risk of injury, which will lead to greater injury prevention.

Injuries will affect about 1 in 15 Olympic athletes during most games. Doctors use imaging services almost exclusively to diagnose these injuries, making them a necessary resource. With even more athletes competing in the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics — almost 3,000 — physicians doubtless put diagnostic imaging medical resources to even greater use.