Do You Need a Doctor Who Runs?

Posted by Filed Under: Health & Fitness, Running Tips

surgery.jpgEvery runner who has been at it for more than a few months likely has come up with some kind of ache, pain or injury that was serious enough to land you in a doctor’s office. After hearing from your spouse, friends and co-workers that the answer to your problem is, of course, to stop running, you’re probably sitting in that waiting room with a mixture of apprehension and hope. Hope that maybe this doctor will be different, maybe she’ll understand that you can’t just stop running. Maybe, if you’re really lucky, she’ll be a runner herself and will understand all of your neuroses and anxieties and other assorted emotions and will work with you to stay active while still fixing the problem.

This kind of doctor is a rare commodity. My running friends and I pass around the names of the few running doctors we’ve found as if we’re handling the Dead Sea Scrolls. Any doctor who keeps us on the road and off the couch is a keeper. But, the question remains: Does a doctor who runs actually take better care of patients who are runners? My own experience aside, the answer seems to be—not necessarily.

medicalphobias.jpgThe New York Times recently took a look at this question, talking to a number of athletes and doctors who are also runners. The patients said that for the most part, athletic doctors work harder to find ways to keep them active, looking for alternative solutions to nagging injuries and not reflexively playing the “stop-running” card. And the runner-doctors said much the same thing and said that they themselves seek out doctors who are also athletes.

But there are plenty of examples on the other sides of the fence, too. According to the article,

That is what Patricia Sener, 43, an open-water swimmer who lives in Brooklyn, discovered when she had a problem and went to a doctor who specialized in treating athletes. The doctor pointed to a gray spot in an MRI of her knee and told her she might need a major operation to replace her anterior cruciate ligament. But he said he would not know for sure until she was on the operating table.

“I’m training for the English Channel,” Ms. Sener said. “I’m on a time line. I can’t afford six months off.”

She went to a different doctor, a swimmer, for a second opinion.

“He pointed to the exact same spot on the M.R.I. and said: ‘See this. It’s normal.’” All she needed, she said, was physical therapy to strengthen the connecting muscle and ligaments around her knee and stabilize it. She recovered.

I’ve had relatively few serious injuries, but I tend to get a lot of persistent aches that make running uncomfortable for a few weeks or months at a time. I’ve seen plenty of doctors in the last few years and my experience has been that as soon as I mention that I’m a runner, they stop taking notes and just wait for me to finish talking so they can say, “Stop running for X number of weeks.” This has been true of every doctor I’ve seen, save one, who essentially has become my primary care physician despite the fact that he’s a rheumatologist. He’s a runner, and a pretty good one and as a result, he has an idea which problems actually do need rest and which ones can be worked out while continuing to run. But he also knows how stubborn runners are and isn’t afraid to tell me when I need to chill for a while. In other words, he’s not simply an enabler; he’s a doctor who listens.

Finding a doctor like that is tough, but it’s worth the extra effort. Ask around with your running partners and clubmates to see who they use and then check them out. Or check the major marathons and other races in your area to see who the official race doctors are. But find one, and stick with him. You’ll be much happier in the long run.

About Dennis Fisher

Dennis is an award-winning journalist and not-so-award-winning runner. His day job involves writing about technology, which is why he runs so much. A native of Virginia, Dennis is a veteran marathoner and road racer who has recently discovered the joy and broken bones of trail running. He trains with the Greater Boston Track Club and lives outside Boston with his wife and children.

  1. Mom On The Run on January 15th at 3:34 pm

    From my experiences, family Dr’s aren’t the best people to see about orthopaedic injuries. An Athletic Therapist is a much better choice. They treat the cause, not the symptons and also work to keep ya not only running, but also running injury free by analyzing gait, shoes, training plans etc. Though I may be a bit biased ’cause I majored in Athletic Therapy in University.

  2. running private on January 16th at 3:43 am

    I’ve had that experience with doctor’s before. A few years back I had a persistant problem with my ankle – when I told the doctor I was a marathon runner he shook his head and said I’d have to give it up as it was too much for my ankle to handle.

    After 6 months of the problem (probably managing to train once a week on grass) and occasionally having to break into a limp when walking I saw a new physio, recommended by my friend as runner friendly. He looked at it for a few minutes, gave me the most mundane exercises to do everyday for the next two months to strengthen the ligaments around the ankle and then said to start back into running. 1 year later and I took 25 minutes off the last marathon I did 18 months prior.

  3. Jeanne on January 16th at 4:49 am

    what a great story, running private!

  4. P.O.M. on January 22nd at 6:07 pm

    I think it’s important to know what the real problem is. But usually there are a few different ways to treat them. I firmly believe a great P.T. can be just as helpful working thru injuries 🙂

  5. Dr. John Thomas "The Running Doctor" on October 14th at 8:50 pm

    Hello runners! I’m a doctor (Sports Chiropractor) who runs marathons and participates in triathlons and I have seen many patients who have had bad experiences with other doctors who do not run. Non-athletic or non-running doctors don’t truly grasp the condition of the the runner. They do not understand our passion for running nor can they relate to the many different running conditions that commonly plague our extremities. They do not understand the power of the endorphin high, the need to PR or the importance we place on qualifying for Boston. I understand. Check out my blog for inspiring health tips. information, and success stories about athletes for athletes.

    Dr. Thomas, “The Running Doctor”