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10 Questions with Alexandre Lopes, Physical-Therapy Professor

'No pain, no gain' is a terrible message

UMass Lowell physical therapy professor Alexandre Lopes in the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the Olympic games.
UMass Lowell physical therapy professor Alexandre Lopes in the Olympic Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, during the Olympic games. Lopes monitored athletes injuries and health during the 2016 games.

Lowell Sun
By Robert Mills

LOWELL -- UMass Lowell physical therapy professor Alexandre Lopes, 42, monitored athletes' injuries and health during the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro over the summer as a member of the International Olympic Committee's Medical and Scientific Commission. A physical therapist since 1996, the Summer Games were the fifth time Lopes has worked at the Olympics, but his first as a researcher. A native of Brazil, Lopes joined the UMass Lowell faculty earlier this year.

Q. What type of issues were you researching at the games?

A. I was involved with the International Olympic Committee's Medical and Scientific Commission. The purpose of the group is to monitor the illness and injuries that happened during the games.

Q. What's the most common type of injury you see?

A. I can't say about Rio because we're still processing the data and publishing research. In general, I have a lot of experience with runners and recreational athletes as well. I can say that in both types of athletes, the most common injuries are overuse injuries; tendons and problems with bones, and, of course, in sport you have a lot of trauma injuries, too.

Q. What's the most unusual injury you've had to treat?

A. Probably trauma injuries. I've seen a lot of bizarre trauma injuries, for example, I once saw a badminton player who got a (shuttlecock) in his eye.

Q. What's the easiest step an athlete can take to prevent injury?

A. If you're talking about overuse injuries, the best thing is to start slowly and try to avoid too much, too soon, too fast. Try to avoid this kind of error and listen to your body. If you have some kind of pain it's because something is happening. There's a huge problem because the culture of sports is "no pain, no gain," but it's a terrible message. If you're feeling some kind of pain your body is trying to help you. If you have pain, there's a physiological reason that needs attention.

Q. Do Olympic athletes often want to play through injuries since the games are only every four years, and if so, how do you deal about that as a physical therapist?

A. Yes. It's probably not the best time to discourage athletes three or four days before the games. Sometimes exercise or electrical therapy to help with pain and swelling. We can usually help 24 or 48 hours before an event, but sometimes there isn't enough time because biological systems need seven to 10 days for healing.

Q. Does the fitness level of top athletes make them more resistant to injuries, or are they just like the rest of us couch potatoes when it comes to risk of injury?

A. I think you have the same problems with different excuses. Both groups have different reasons not to listen to their bodies or to not understand what's too much or too soon.

Q. Are there specific events that lead to more injuries? If so, what are the most damaging events?

A. Events where you have contact. For example, there are more injuries in football, soccer or basketball compared to volleyball, where there's no contact. In individual sports, gymnastics is very hard for the body. And sports that involve fighting, such as judo and Taekwondo.

Q. Have you ever had to tell an athlete that an injury would prevent them from competing?

A. It's very hard, but sometimes it's what you need to do. We work in a team with a physician and we invite the coach or trainer to participate in the decisions. Normally, we have a meeting with an athlete, coach, and try to involve more people in the decision, so it's not just my opinion. Sometimes we even reach out to family members. It's the kind of decision where you need to invite the whole team to participate in the final decision.

Q. Athletes know they've done a good job based on how they finish, but how do you evaluate your performance as a physical trainer?

A. If I help each athlete compete with minimal pain or discomfort I think I've done a great job because we helped them to participate. I'm not sure if they're at 100 percent, but we can help them increase the capacity to play, and if I can reduce pain or swelling for an athlete, I've done a good job.

Q. There were a lot of concerns about crime and environmental conditions and facilities leading up to the games. Do you think the games ended up a success?

A. My impression was so nice. I think the venues were very nice. Every games, before they start, things are the same. One week before Beijing people saying it would be a terrible games. Same with Salt Lake City in 2002. I think it happens during all the games, but after the opening ceremony, people change and start talking about the games. I think it was the same in Rio.