Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Vonda Wright treats esports athletes in breakout program

Orthopedic Sports Medicine

Vonda Wright, MD, board-certified orthopedic surgeon and chief of Northside Hospital Sports Medicine Network in Atlanta, is using her medical expertise to treat esports athletes.

Esports has exploded into the mainstream and is now a global industry expected to generate over $1 billion in 2019, according to a recent report from Newzoo.

"The kids sitting in the basement, getting yelled at by their parents to come upstairs, quit eating pizza and playing video games. Those kids are coming of age now; they're millennials and they've turned their passion for play into a $1.4 billion industry," said Dr. Wright.

Dr. Wright and her team at NHSMN have been researching injury prevention, recovery methods and ways to sharpen performance.

The physicians are focusing on hand-eye coordination, speed and agility, how to reduce mental fatigue and the overall physical health of these esports athletes, who regularly spend eight to 10 hours a day in a chair during competitions.

Dr. Wright found that esports athletes succumb to some of the same upper extremity injuries that traditional athletes experience, as well as lower back pain and in extreme cases, total body deconditioning.

"Six elite South Korean gamers had what was described as lung collapse. I think what happened to them was they sat in one place so long that they got blood clots in their legs, they drew pulmonary embolisms into their lungs and their lungs collapsed," said Dr. Wright.

"Sitting in a chair for long hours leads to low back pain, weak cores, weak butts. We can be completely and totally deconditioned," said Dr. Wright. "They're usually leaning in towards the screen, so they get very tight upper backs, neck pain, and poor posture which leads to shoulder pain, they get tendonitis on the palm side of their hands from being in the same position and they get gamer's thumbs."

There is an ongoing debate about what defines an athlete or a sport but several U.S. university athletic departments have already recognized esports as an official sport, with 31 schools offering scholarships and grants for collegiate esport athletes.

Graduates of these programs often pursue careers in the biotech industry, computer programming or graphic design.

Eight states in the U.S. — Georgia, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island, Alabama, Mississippi and Texas — now recognize esports as a high school varsity sport with more expected to follow suit.

Economic advantages aside, Dr. Wright also points to the social benefits competitive gaming provides for esports athletes.

"In Georgia, gaming is a varsity sport and when these kids go to the state tournaments and come home with trophies, they're the school heroes in the same way that the football team is. So even the social aspects of gaming are bringing an entire generation to the forefront who normally wouldn't be," said Dr. Wright.

She draws an interesting comparison between esports athletes and extreme sports athletes. When extreme sports were in their infancy, no one took them seriously, but extreme sports like skateboarding and snowboarding, have thrived since the formation of the X-games in 1995, in the same way that esports is now.

"I don't think that anyone would say now that snowboarders or skateboarders aren't exhibiting high-level prowess," said Dr. Wright. By the same token she adds that esports athletes are "highly skilled, playing a game, focusing towards a goal."

In addition to tackling preventative injury measures the esports program is educating players on nutrition, performance food and overall physical health. Dr. Wright and her team will offer pre-performance screenings and a team or league physician will be provided for tournament play.

"All the things that we've done for traditional athletes, none have been done for esports athletes. So it's wide open for discovery which is why it makes it so exciting," said Dr. Wright. "That's the fun of research: To know the answer before anybody ever does."

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