Turning Pain into Empathy: Sports Medicine at ACNW

“That happened to me once, too.”

When asked why she chose to become a doctor, Dr. Lauren Poindexter, a non-surgical sports medicine physician at Arkansas Children’s Northwest, shared a list of injuries she suffered:

  • sprained ankle

  • shin splints
  • arm broken while on vacation that went undiagnosed for two weeks
  • mysterious, painful popping in hip during dance practice
  • unidentified knee pain that makes it too painful to run
  • a concussion during a soccer match

This is a partial list of injuries she has experienced in her lifetime. “Sometimes I laugh at how many times I can tell my patients, ‘Yes. That happened to me once.” Poindexter, who still plays kickball and adult league softball, ran track, played tennis, soccer and basketball and did gymnastics and cheerleading growing up.

“I grew up in the 80s and 90s without access to athletic trainers or good sports medicine doctors. My pediatricians didn’t know what to do with me, so I just limped along until the problem seemed to heal itself.

Her experience as a young athlete and her desire to help others led her to study kinesiology and become an athletic trainer before deciding to go to medical school.

Poindexter splits her time between caring for children at Arkansas Children’s Northwest and at clinics run by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, where she is an assistant professor. She is also the team doctor for the Arkansas Razorbacks.

Physical and emotional aspects of injuries

It takes a team of experts to keep young athletes healthy and back on the field. The sports medicine team at ACNW includes athletic trainers, nurses, physical therapists, occupational therapists and physicians like Poindexter. The first goal of an ACNW athletic trainer is to prevent injury by using strategies such as taping ankles, encouraging proper stretching techniques, or ensuring athletes stay hydrated. When a sports injury occurs, coaches can become a valuable link between patient and doctor because of their ability to describe the circumstances and symptoms of the injury. In other cases, emergency room physicians, often the first stop for parents, will refer patients to the ACNW Sports Medicine Clinic because of the specialized treatments available.

The ACNW team treats both the physical and emotional aspects of injuries. The first step is listening to the young patient and his parents. Children, especially young children, may not have the vocabulary to describe an injury. Poindexter said, “Children and adults have different pain thresholds, which means that some injuries affect children and adults completely differently.”

To accurately diagnose an injury, ACNW’s sports medicine team listens to the patient and their parents, conducts a thorough physical exam, and uses X-rays when necessary. Football and soccer seasons result in many sprained ankles, knee injuries and concussions.

In addition to physical pain, trauma often causes stress. Young athletes sometimes worry that they won’t be able to participate in their favorite sports, and parents worry that their children will get injured again. The stress of an injury can cause secondary problems such as headaches or insomnia.

“We talk about those emotions,” Poindexter said. “We invite parents and we invite kids to talk about what this injury means to them because it’s a safe place for them to learn about their bodies and also for us to explore this emotional side of injuries.”

Back in the game

Being an athlete helps Poindexter understand the value of sports for his patients. “It gives them such a wonderful sense of accomplishment,” she said. “The teamwork they learn and the camaraderie are so necessary to help them weather the storms that come with being a normal kid.”

Treatment and rehabilitation of injuries can take weeks or months. Physical therapists and occupational therapists provide the specialized pediatric care needed for muscles and bones that are still growing while healing. “These kids respond very well to encouragement and physical therapy,” Poindexter said. “We all love seeing them back in the clinic as they get stronger and more comfortable in their bodies. Their physical recovery is paralleled by improved emotional stability, and families are ready!”

Arkansas Children’s uses “safe return to play” protocols during treatment before clearing an athlete to return to the field.

A diverse team for diverse athletes

It takes the diverse skills of everyone on the ACNW sports medicine team—trainers, pediatric nurses and physicians, physical therapists, and occupational therapists—working together to make kids better today and healthier tomorrow.

Other types of diversity are also important. Being an athlete and the only non-surgical sports doctor in the region helps Poindexter relate to the unique perspective of some of her patients.

“There’s been an explosion of women and young girls coming into the sport,” Poindexter said. “We’ve also seen these athletes find more courage and more confidence in saying out loud, ‘I’m hurt.’

When injuries do occur, the sports medicine team at ACNW is committed to treating all patients with a combination of compassion and expert care.

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