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What’s Small, Agile, Fast, at the Olympic Games, but Not a Gymnast?

Answer – a portable ultrasound scanner

As the world continues to take in the high-impact, high-drama images emerging from what might be the most exciting Olympic Games yet, the medical teams working behind the scenes are taking in images of a different kind – ones that could make or break an Olympic Games dream.

Dr. Fernando Hess, a Brazilian sports medicine doctor who was invited by the IOC to work at Deodoro Olympic Park, knows better than most the importance of having a fast and effective ultrasound scanner at the ready for the athletes.

He is overseeing the medical provisions for the rugby and the modern pentathlon, an Olympic sport that comprises five very different events: fencing, 200m freestyle swimmingshow jumping, and a final combined event of pistol shooting, and a 3200m cross-country run.

“[Ultrasound] is really important in sports medicine because this machine is smaller than an MRI, and you can gain a lot of information from it. Especially dynamic information. Other modalities give you a still picture, but with ultrasound you can move the probe around making it easy for the athletes to say exactly where their pain is.”

A testament to how useful ultrasound is for the Olympic Games, Team France medics brought their own ultrasound machines. They said, “We have our habits with these machines, and we can do our exams whenever we want. All our own pre-sets are there and ready to go, we don’t have to set them from scratch. With a team of 30 doctors and 54 physiotherapists, we prefer to work like we do back home!”

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In the realm of sports medicine, ultrasound is used more often then you might think. When asked which body part gets examined the most using the technology, Dr. Hess didn’t hesitate. “The legs,” he said. “Mainly the hamstrings. Athletes use huge bursts of explosive running in most sports, and this puts immense pressure on the hamstrings.”

Knees and shoulders came a close second. “In sports like gymnastics, athletes extend their limbs and core to the maximum, then contract them forcefully against several Gs of force… the high-impact landings also make it a tough sport for muscles and tendons,” he added.

Factor in all the sprained fingers, wrists and ankles suffered in sports ranging from tennis to judo to handball, and an easily deployable, easy-to-use ultrasound system quickly becomes indispensable for medical teams.

This machine is very portable, and sometimes we need to make some quick but important decisions from the side-lines about whether a player can go back into play or not,” said Dr. Hess. “We can therefore tell whether an injury is minor or more serious, and tell player what to do with more confidence than we ever could without ultrasound.”

“With other kinds of ultrasound, it’s not always as easy to scan immediately after an injury,” he added. “It can take some time for the athlete to be able to have a scan done, and a lot can happen in that space of time.”

The Olympic Games isn’t the proving ground for this technology though. Far from it: portable ultrasound is a tried-and-tested modality that has been successfully deployed around the world, from the Amazon to inner city medical schools.

“I recently saw an athlete [from the New Zealand rugby team] who had an Achilles tendon injury on the field,” Dr. Hess remembered. “But it wasn’t immediately apparent if it was torn. He wanted to know whether he could finish the game, or whether his time at the Olympic Games was up and he should head back home.”

“Almost immediately we were able to get an ultrasound scan and safely concluded that his Achilles was indeed, sadly, torn. But the right decision was made and he is now in recovery back home.”