Every 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.
The 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.