Healing and the Ancients: How Sports Medicine Builds on the Past

Yesterday as I lay on a table at the physical therapist’s, with a big bag of ice between my knees and a gigantic pile of hot, damp towels on my thigh, it occurred to me how smart the Romans really were.  I have an old knee/ankle injury that has been acting up, and since the only remedy for it is a combination of targeted exercise and rest, it is to the physical therapist that one must go.  If like me you are at all interested in history, or enjoy watching historical entertainment like “Rome” or the old sword-and-sandal epics, you cannot help but see the parallels between what our ancestors were doing millenia ago to treat what we might loosely term “sports injuries”, and what still remain among the best practices to restore human health today.

Chances are that even if you have never visited one yet, most of you reading this will spend will end up spending at least some part of your life in a physical therapist’s clinic.  The reasons why a doctor sends you there will vary, but they are not just places for athletes.  It could very well be that you end up with a physical therapist because of athletic injuries of course, but it could also just as easily be because of disabilities, accidents, recovery from surgery or, in the fullness of time, old age taking its toll.  Generally speaking, when you go to such a clinic you will see a whole range of ages among the patients, from teenagers who have injured themselves playing football or running, to very elderly people who are recovering from joint replacements.

What I find interesting in such places is the combination of new technology with ancient, tried-and-true methods of encouraging healing.  For example, at the clinic I go to there are different exercise machines designed to work different parts of the body, safely, using weights and resistance, along with machines like treadmills, ellipticals, and stair climbers to get the heart rate up and joints moving.  Many of these machines have digital technology with computers on board, to create various timing and usage programs.  The therapists themselves walk about using laptop and pad computers as they take notes, and track the progress of their patients.

Yet there also implements and methods which are unchanged from very ancient times. These could include such things as throwing and catching a heavy, rubber ball, or using sturdy straps and ropes to stretch out cramped muscles, or subjecting oneself to manipulation by the therapist, that could come right out of a description from one of Pliny the Younger’s letters.  For example, one of my newest exercises to loosen up and strengthen my ankle involves scattering a handful of marbles on the floor, and then using only my toes to pick each of them up and drop them individually in a cup, while the therapist times my performance.  It feels like a positively antediluvian exercise.

There is always some element of physical therapy involving pain, which has not changed in centuries, either.  One goes through the experience of having things bent, pushed, and pulled out of joint for what seems like an eternity, and then one is rewarded by being frozen or cooked to death – or both, simultaneously, through the use of ice packs or heating pads.  Of course if the therapist likes to combine Eastern and Western methods, you may also be pricked all over with pins, or have hot rocks put all over you, and other strange things.

Professional athletes are quite used to this sort of treatment, of course.  Recently for example I saw a commercial where a group of Brazilian soccer players were in their physical therapists’ clinic after a match, sitting in individual galvanized metal bathtubs, and each was being covered with massive piles of ice cubes up to their chest to reduce inflammation in their legs.  While these methods obviously work, for those of us not accustomed to such treatment on a regular basis, with sports medicine seemingly alien to our experience of spending most of the day sitting down, one simply holds on for dear life until it is all over.

Perhaps it is the history nerd in me, but I must confess I do rather like the idea of having a connection to the distant past when I go to such places.  There is a sense that the accumulated knowledge of centuries is at work, so that there is relief and healing in the hands of the competent people who run these places.  Modern pharmaceuticals are indeed wonderful things, for they alleviate a great deal of suffering. Yet for “sports injuries” to our bones, nerves, and muscles, human interaction and the personal attention paid to each patient brought to bear by a good physical therapist provides a degree of relief through communication, based on an understanding that one size does not fit all. This is a refreshingly old idea, in a world constantly seeking novelty.

Wall painting of patients and therapists in Ancient Egypt (c. 2,300 B.C.)
Tomb of the Physician, Saqqara, Egypt

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The Courtier (Momentarily) Emerges from Beneath His Rock

Yesterday while reading the newspaper at lunch, The Courtier perused the section on celebrity sightings around the Nation’s Capital. There was a brief piece about a famous local hockey player, who had been spotted watching a televised football game between the Washington Redskins and the Dallas Cowboys football teams, at a local bar-restaurant. This scrivener was then rather taken aback to read the following statement, expressed parenthetically: “For those living under a rock, the Skins lost to Dallas by 2 points thanks to a late-game field goal.”

Since apparently The Courtier has been, unbeknownst to him, living under a rock for most of his life, in that he completely ignores such sports results and believes that they have no impact whatsoever on the joy and fruitfulness of his existence, perhaps it is time for him to emerge from beneath this alleged crag of unknowing, under which he has been trapped for decades, and ask that very serious, probing question: Are you kidding me?

To begin with, while it is true that The Courtier has never had much interest in sports, he is not entirely opposed to enjoying the watching of a few of them from time to time. Grand Slam tennis – i.e. Wimbledon, the U.S., French, and Australian Opens – and a European or World Cup soccer involving either F.C. Barcelona (“Barça”) or the Spanish national team will always draw his attention. However that is pretty much it, as far as his participation is concerned, unless he is made to attend or watch a sporting event under duress. For example, the single time The Courtier was dragged against his will to watch a Major League Baseball game, between the Philadelphia Phillies and the Pittsburgh Pirates, he brought along a book by Alexander Solzhenitsyn to keep him company.

The Courtier is very much aware that good, intelligent people follow professional sports teams, and enjoy themselves at these events; he is not, in any way, disparaging them for doing so, within reason.  Yet what does disturb him is the attitude taken by many that if one is not interested in such things, that one must be some sort of an oddity, or mental defective.  It is considered perfectly acceptable for a sports fan to say that he does not like reading important works of literature, or listening to a great symphony, because such things are not viewed by many as being necessary for the process of human civilization to continue. Yet if a non-sports fan says he does not like nor follow professional sports, he is often treated like the proverbial red-headed stepchild, or at least viewed with some combination of mistrust and condescension.

Some years ago in London, a conservative Norwegian friend who was both very athletic and very intellectual (as well as an insatiable consumer of single malts and aquavit), commented at dinner one evening that Karl Marx is now outdated in his assessment that religion is the opiate of the masses. Rather, The Courtier’s viking friend made the argument that today, sports has become opiate of the masses. It keeps the populace entertained and from asking too many questions, and it stops them from killing each other over whose village has the best ale or the prettiest girls. And, he further argued, while many nowadays will make no time at all at the weekend to attend religious services for an hour, sports fans will certainly make time – indeed, hours and hours of time – every weekend to sit down and watch a meaningless contest between overpaid entertainers, as to who can achieve a physical feat better within certain parameters.

This is perhaps a too-harsh assessment of the modern sports fan. As an initial matter the term “opiate of the masses”, as applied to religion, while attributed to Marx because he used it in one of his early books, is probably one that was taken from the Marquis de Sade, who had made a similar analogy a number of decades earlier. As both of these writers were, in a word, scum, it is not surprising that each would take such a negative view of religion. Yet that being said, to apply their theories to what ought to be a harmless entertainment does seem to be somewhat excessive.

The fact that The Courtier could care less about whether the Cowboys beat the Redskins, and by how much, does not mean that he is living under a rock. It means that he puts professional sports into the category in which it belongs: entertainment. Despite whatever avid sports fans may think of the sports they follow – football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and so on – that is all that these things are. And because such things really are nothing more than entertainment, The Courtier fails to see why he should pay any more attention to those particular types of entertainments than he does to any other forms of entertainment he does not like – such as “Glee”, the work of Michael Buble, “American Idol”, and the Tony Awards, to name a few.

So while The Courtier’s friends and followers (assuming he still has any after this post) will continue to comment, tweet, and post about baseball playoffs, football season, and so on, he will try his best from this point to keep his mouth shut, and to keep from falling asleep from what is to him the tedium of it all, while he pursues his own amusements and entertainments. Yet before submerging back below the crag beneath which he dwells, The Courtier does think it ought to be pointed out that a brief survey of an evening news program tells us something about what we value in our society. Following the national/local headlines and the weather, the portion of the program devoted to covering the entertainment known as sports far exceeds any reporting on the sciences, arts, business, or religion, unless there is a major crisis or scandal in one of these areas. Perhaps we should be asking ourselves whether that amount of coverage, for something which is ultimately an ephemeral entertainment, is really worth a proportional amount of our collective attention.

“St. Jerome in His Cave” by Joachim Patinir (c. 1515)
Museo del Prado, Madrid