Whether you’re a fitness guru or you’re just starting on a new workout routine (good on you!), there’s bound to be a risk of sports injuries. These include muscle strains, runner’s knee, ankle sprain, fractures and more. Not keen on going under the knife or visiting an orthopaedic surgeon? Consider seeing a sports medicine specialist for injury prevention and post-injury recovery. We chat to Irish-born Dr Cormac O’Muircheartaigh, Director of The Sports Medicine Lab. One cool fact: he has rubbed shoulders with Olympic stars like Usain Bolt and Joseph Schooling!
A sports medicine specialist in Singapore
What brought you to Singapore?
I’ve been living in Singapore for over 15 years. I came here because my wife, Dr Maybelle Tan of The Belle Clinic, had initially wanted to move back to work for a year. We made a decision to stay on pretty quickly because we had fantastic career opportunities here.
I was headhunted to work in the Singapore Sports Institute. My last role there was as the Medical Director in charge of the entire Team Singapore athlete population’s medical needs.
Take us through what you do as a sports medicine specialist.
There are multiple facets to my role. These include acute and chronic injury management, planning injury-prevention programmes and exercise prescription for health, as well as sports event medical management.
The most common reason for people to visit is to get a diagnosis and management plan for acute and chronic sports injuries like runner’s knee and ankle sprains. I’ve been directly involved in the provision of medical services to elite international athletes for over 20 years. I utilise the principles involved in caring for Olympic-level athletes and modify them to help individuals recover from their injury and attain their personal performance goals. For some, the goal may be to walk without pain, while for others it may be to complete a 10km run. Everybody has their own intrinsic goals and my role is to help them achieve it.
I perform multiple non-surgical interventions. These include diagnostic ultrasound examination, which assists with the dynamic assessment of injury and reduces the need for MRI investigation. The first step in any injury recovery process is to identify and correct an underlying cause or risk factor to help recovery and prevent future recurrence. The second step is getting an appropriate exercise prescription to stimulate the body to recover naturally. Our bodies have an incredible ability to heal and adapt. By prescribing appropriate exercises and movement therapy, we are stimulating our own natural healing process. I live by a simple motto in this regard: movement is medicine.
Occasionally, our bodies need a little help to recover from injury. Solutions include guided injections like Platelet Rich Plasma and treatment interventions such as medical acupuncture, prolotherapy and guided shock-wave therapy. I don’t perform surgery. I have developed a reputation for giving an honest second opinion on suitability for surgery or alternative options for treatment in place of surgical means. Having said this, if surgery is the most appropriate option, I will be the first person to recommend it!
What about injury prevention?
I work with individuals and sporting organisations to design and implement strategies to prevent injuries. There is an inherent risk of injury in every sport. From my experience, there’s an epidemic of acute knee injuries (particularly acute ACL tears) in Singapore in recent years. If you or your child is participating in sports like football, netball, rugby or gymnastics, and an injury prevention programme is not part of the routine training regime, the risk of sustaining a serious knee injury is over 50 percent higher! This is where simple, sport-specific exercises and movement training become critical.
What do you like most about your job?
Every day is different. I have the privilege of helping people get better, be it in their sports performance or simple daily situations. It can be a challenge, but teaching others to stimulate their innate healing abilities and seeing the moment of enlightenment when something changes make everything worth it.
What memorable events have you taken part in?
As a sports physician, I’ve treated Olympic athletes from 33 countries, from every continent. It’s always a privilege to watch them excel in their sport. It would be easy to list off historic events that I’ve witnessed, such as being poolside and watching Michael Phelps win each of his eight swimming gold medals in Beijing in 2008, or watching Usain Bolt win his track races in London. But these are not the events that are truly memorable. The privilege of being a sports medicine specialist is in being part of the athletes’ journey to success. That includes witnessing the struggles, helping them overcome and recover both mentally and physically, then ultimately watching them perform at their best.
The truly memorable events for me are watching Lim Heem Wei qualify and compete as the first Singaporean gymnast at an Olympic Games in London in 2012, and watching Singapore Olympic rower Saiyidah Aisyah compete in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Both are memorable based on the journeys and adversities they overcame to get to that position. I also remember assessing Joseph Schooling for the first time as a shy 13-year-old and asking him about his goal, then getting the honest reply – “I’m going to be an Olympic champion!” – and seeing it come true.
What are the most common types of sports injuries?
It depends on the sport! Overall, ankle sprains and knee injuries (like runner’s knee) are common for most field-based sports. Shoulder and back injuries occur most for overhead sports such as swimming and badminton.
What are your top tips to preventing such injuries?
Adequate strength, movement competency and monitoring of training load. These are simple principles to follow in any prevention programme. In reality, we are fighting a battle between sedentary behaviour in school or at work, with extreme human movement in fast and explosive sporting endeavours. We need to realise that what we do daily has a knock-on effect on how we perform on the field!
If you liked this story on how to prevent and treat common sports injuries like ankle sprains and runner’s knee, check out our Health & Fitness section.