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Steelers doctor, trainer enjoy breakthrough with hamstring injury study

| Wednesday, March 12, 2014, 10:12 p.m.
Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review
Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley, shown playing against the New England Patriots in November at Gilette Stadium, was hampered by hamstring injuries the past couple of seasons.

NFL teams for the first time can forecast precisely when players with often-debilitating hamstring injuries will return, the result of a study headed by Steelers orthopedic surgeon Dr. Jim Bradley and head athletic trainer John Norwig.

Bradley and Norwig also are convinced that injecting platelet-rich plasma — enriched blood that stimulates soft-tissue healing — not only gets players with injured hamstrings on the field as much as a week faster but also might prevent future hamstring tears.

Hamstring injuries are among the NFL's most problematic because teams often didn't know for days, or sometimes weeks, when key players will return, thus delaying personnel decisions.

Former Steelers outside linebacker LaMarr Woodley was among those bothered in recent seasons by multiple hamstring injuries.

“They change from being a Porsche to being a pickup truck real fast,” Bradley said Wednesday. “If they have a hamstring (injury), they're not the same player.”

Working with former Philadelphia Eagles head athletic trainer Rick Burkholder, a one-time Steelers trainer now with the Kansas City Chiefs, Bradley and Norwig reviewed 57 MRIs from 43 injured players to develop a chart that accurately can predict a player's return date.

“The problem was we were getting MRIs, but we didn't have any classification system to tell us if this is going to be a 21-day injury or if this is going to be a less than seven-day injury,” Bradley said.

Now, Bradley said, “We can give the coaching staff, Kevin Colbert, a good idea of whether it's a short-term return, a medium return or a long-term return, and we couldn't do that before. We were just guessing.”

A Steelers-only study by Bradley and Norwig determined that injecting plasma might be the most effective tool yet to shortening a player's layoff following a hamstring injury.

“The important thing is we had no (hamstring) re-tears (following the injections),” Bradley said. “Normally we have two to four re-tears of the hamstring in the exact spot per season. After (the injection), we had zero.

“And the No. 1 risk factor to having a hamstring tear is having a prior hamstring tear.”

The study might help the Steelers decide whether to sign players with a history of hamstring injuries.

“If a free agent comes in, we will get MRIs if they've had recurring hamstring strains to make sure they're not scarred,” Bradley said. “If you get a guy who's a wide receiver or a defensive back, really explosive, we will scan his legs to make sure he doesn't have pockets of scars sitting on his hamstring because the risk of having a repeat hamstring strain goes up considerably (if he does).”

The study's results are to be published in multiple medical journals.

Alan Robinson is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at arobinson@tribweb.com or via Twitter @arobinson_Trib.

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