Sports Medicine Negligence

While it’s true we love to cheer on our sports here in Indiana, it’s always a frightening moment when an athlete suffers an in-game injury. When Indianapolis Pacers star Victor Oladipo suffered a gruesome ruptured quad tendon in 2018, attendees held their breath as medical staff rushed to his side. Though the result was the end of Oladipo’s season, fans rested easy assuming he was receiving immediate and thorough medical care from trainers, doctors, and physical therapists. But what about when this isn’t the case, and these trusted sports medicine professionals act negligently?

When injuries occur during the course of sports, the teams, schools, and organizations involved look to their sports medicine team to provide care and rehabilitation. And just as in other medical settings, the professionals involved have a real responsibility and duty to these patients. Not only are they depended on to diagnose and treat the injury, it’s also a matter of helping the athlete through recovery and an eventual return to the field. If a sports injury was improperly diagnosed or worsened by treatment, it’s best to contact an Indianapolis sports medicine negligence attorney for professional guidance.

Athletic Trainer Care and Certification Requirements

Athletic trainers are medical professionals employed by either a school or team to provide in-house specialized care for any injured athletes. According to the Board of Certification for The Athletic Trainer, this involves the prevention, diagnosis, and emergency intervention of injuries or conditions stemming from the sport. This means that a trainer’s role extends far beyond a mid-game incident, including areas of practice like:

  • Teaching proper stretching
  • Injury rehabilitation
  • Bandaging and setting splints
  • Supervised workouts following injury
  • Approving athletes to return to play

Because of their involvement with sports medicine and injuries, trainers must receive proper certification to be hired. This includes receiving a bachelors or master’s degree from an accredited athletic training program, where they’re educated on injury prevention, examination and diagnosis, emergency care, and therapeutic intervention. Trainers must also pass a comprehensive Board of Certification exam and continue ongoing education for routine certification renewal. While they don’t have a medical degree, this certification confirms that they are capable of responding to injuries without causing harm to the public.

Indiana Athletic Trainer Negligence 

Negligence cases in sports medicine are covered by the same rules in general medical negligence, meaning athletic trainers are required to ensure care that, protects the patient from any undue harm. If the needs of a team or school are placed above an injured athlete, athletic trainers may be negligent and therefore liable for further injury and suffering.

In 2017, a member of the Indiana University women’s rowing team filed a complaint against University trainers and doctors after her serious back injury was consistently misdiagnosed and mistreated. During her first encounter with an IU trainer, Kaitlin Beck was told her injury was only muscular and prescribed physical therapy and painkillers. As problems persisted, she was given conflicting diagnoses of fractures, hernias, and hamstring injuries, and Beck claimed to be treated with skepticism and indifference, only receiving an MRI after 20 requests to athletic training staff. After failing to receive adequate care, Beck visited an Indianapolis spinal doctor, who found a serious spinal stress fracture that had separated her upper and lower back. The doctor advised her to discontinue rowing immediately, going against the consensus of sports medicine teams at Indiana. Beck’s complaint eventually led to a malpractice lawsuit and a drastic overhaul of the university’s sports medicine department.

Though these trainers were in place to protect Beck and other athletes, their behavior was negligent from the moment they failed to diagnose a serious sports injury. These medical professionals must always provide the same duty to care as anyone in sports medicine.

Importance of Pre-Participation Exams

Prior to joining any team at the high school, collegiate, or professional level, athletes are required to undergo a physical and full evaluation to determine eligibility. These are often conducted by primary care physicians and are used to establish whether the individual is healthy enough to play the sport. The exams are standardized across the country in an effort to reduce injury or unforeseen deaths in everything from football and soccer to running and golf.

Preparticipation exams focus primarily on heart and musculoskeletal health, with particular interest in the patient’s ability to perform during high-energy activity. The National Athletic Trainers Association created guidelines for physicians to follow, specifying the biggest areas for concern in young athletes, including:

 

  •  An in-depth family medical history to identify any potential cardiovascular or genetic conditions.
  • A general physical to record vitals, take a blood panel, and document any concerns of the patient or doctor.
  • A cardiovascular screening and evaluation. This was strongly recommended by the American Heart Association and is a crucial line of defense against hidden heart problems or sudden cardiac arrest.
  • Orthopedic examination to identify issues with muscle performance, range of motion, back and knee problems, and strength.

While these exams protect Indiana high schools in a sports medicine negligence lawsuit, they also play an important role in keeping young people safe. If the doctor administering the tests and evaluation is lax in any way or fails to note a potentially dangerous condition, there is no way for coaches or athletic staff to know. This can lead to emergency situations, especially during intense physical activity. An incomplete or insufficient preparticipation physical exam is an act of negligence by the physician. 

On-Field Evaluations

When injuries occur during a game, the severity could be mild, extreme, or anywhere in between. So, when trainers and team medics come to their assistance there needs to be emergency protocol in place to ensure they’re properly assessed and cared for. Though the athlete will eventually be treated on the sideline, locker room, or medical center, an on-field evaluation should not be rushed through or ignored. The goal here is not speed or to get the player back in the game; it’s about delivering on care and ensuring that every necessary precaution is taken to avoid worsening an injury. It’s not uncommon to see an athlete try to “walk it off” after a nasty fall or twisted ankle. But more severe instances like neck or spinal injuries may require mobilization and a transport off the field or court.

According to the National Spinal Cord Center, sports-related injuries are the fourth-leading overall cause of spinal cord injuries. Unsurprisingly, football had the highest occurrence of these accidents. In fact, statistics show that 10-15% of all football players will experience a cervical spine injury. While the culture of football has changed for the better, such as with the introduction of the targeting penalty to protect defenseless players, it still poses a risk as a fast-paced and physically aggressive game. Anyone treating on-field injuries needs to be aware of the signs, symptoms, and proper procedures when handling a spinal cord or neck injury.

As the medical team approaches an injured on-field player, the first thing they should be looking for are signs of a severe injury. Primary symptoms of spine and neck injuries include numbness of extremities, loss of consciousness, extreme pain, and an altered mental state. The moment one of these injuries is suspected, the sports medicine team needs to begin emergency protocol to prevent further harm and prepare for emergency transportation to a hospital. It’s important to note that only the medical team is permitted to move an athlete with a neck or spinal injury.

The first step of treating any spine or neck injury is stabilizing the spine. A player needs to be safely rolled to their back and placed on a backboard. Because these injuries are so traumatic, immediate on-field emergency assessment must take place. Once the spine is neutralized, the medical team should immediately check for cardiovascular function or neurogenic shock. The airway may need to be opened without inflicting any further trauma. From there, the individual has to be transferred safely to a medical facility in an urgent fashion to begin intervention and proper treatment.

Even though sports medicine injuries are treated elsewhere, hurt players on the field should still be given the same care and attention as those on the sidelines or locker room. When a medical team member fails to identify or handle a traumatic neck or spinal injury, they may be liable for worsening the injury.

Concussion Protocol

One of the most prone areas on any athlete is their head and skull. When an athlete suffers a traumatic brain injury due to a collision or fall, it may cause a concussion. Like neck and back injuries, concussions are extremely dangerous if not diagnosed or handled properly. However, they’re not always as easy to spot. Symptoms may be mild or not show up until several days afterward. When signs of a concussion are prevalent, however, they include:

  • Headache
  • Nausea
  • Temporary loss of consciousness
  • Confusion
  • Slurred Speech
  • Fatigue

When concussions go untreated or undiagnosed, symptoms often get worse and include psychological disturbances, issues with concentration, and memory loss. Because of this delayed effect, coaches are advised to take anyone with possible concussion symptoms out of play and send them for medical evaluation.

However, medical treatment of a concussion does not end at a visit to a doctor. More importantly is post-concussion management which is often overseen by sports medicine doctors and team trainers. The recovery time for a concussion can vary wildly based on a number of factors, including severity and previous head injuries. This means that anyone involved in the treatment of sports-related concussions need to be aware of worsening physical and mental symptoms. Players who exhibit signs of post-concussion syndrome should never be cleared to return by a sports medicine team. Additional concussions happen more easily over time, and new studies continue to link head injuries in sports to Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy which causes dramatic changes in neurological function and can lead to death. 

If sports medicine professionals incorrectly diagnose concussions or clear players for return too early, the effects can be intense and even fatal. This failure to treat concussions is a common occurrence in sports medicine negligence cases, and the NCAA was recently hit with a class action lawsuit accusing them of negligence in its duty to its athletes. If improper concussion management is suspected, contact a sports medicine negligence attorney for expert legal guidance.

Christie Farrell Lee & Bell: Indiana Sports Medicine Negligence Lawyers

Though athletes assume some risk of injury when they choose to play a sport, they still deserve the same medical care that anyone in the public would. Doctors, trainers, and other athletic staff have a duty of care to their athletes, and that should never be taken lightly. 

Medical negligence cases are always complex and require lots of information-gathering to develop. Christie Farrell Lee & Bell is a team of Indiana attorneys that has build our practice around helping those injured by negligence regain peace of mind and move forward in life.  Learn more about our Indiana medical malpractice lawyers.