As a former three-time lacrosse captain at Duke University, Karen Sutton, MD, is passionate about helping her patients get back to the sports they love. "I think people feel a lot more comfortable talking to me about wanting to return 100 percent to their sport," said Sutton, who is an orthopaedic surgeon. "I never tell them to give up their sport, because that would be so tough for me to do."
Sutton repairs injuries such as tears to the meniscus, shoulder instability problems, rotator cuff tears and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) ruptures in patients ranging in age from 12 to 50. ACL injuries in particular are increasing in adolescent girls and are occurring earlier due to the competitive nature of youth sports.
Prior to ACL surgery, Sutton's patients undergo six weeks of rehabilitation designed to improve the outcome by gaining back range of motion and strength in their quadriceps and hamstrings. The surgery often involves repairing the meniscus and then removing old ACL fragments before doing a graft, a necessity because a torn ACL is too difficult to repair.
For younger patients, Sutton avoids surgery around growth plates and often recommends either a hamstring graft or a bone patellar tendon graft using their own tissue. For those over 40, she often uses a tendon from a cadaver, which is initially less painful but also has a slightly higher rate of failure in very active individuals.
The arthroscopic surgery is minimally invasive, but recovery takes about six months before patients can return to their sports. "Sometimes they feel stronger than they did before the injury because they did so much strength work and neuromuscular training that they never did before," she said.
Not all of Sutton's patients require surgery, and she is willing to spend the time delving deeper to uncover underlying causes that contribute to an injury. "I think I have a passion for having athletes play at the top of their games, so if non-surgical intervention is required with me spending a lot of time on plyometric exercises and neuromuscular training, that's what I have to do," she said. "I treat the entire athlete, not just the injured area."
Some patients suffer from the female athlete triad of bone density disorders, eating disorders and menstrual irregularities. In those cases, Sutton works with endocrinologists and nutritionists to get these athletes back on track. She is looking forward to participating in the development of a women's health initiative at Yale-New Haven Hospital that will be a multidisciplinary center with physical therapists, athletic trainers, endocrinologists, nutritionists and psychologists/ psychiatrists to take care of active women.
In the meantime, she is working on getting the message of injury prevention, especially for younger girls, out into the community by conducting seminars for parents, coaches and athletes. An effective ACL prevention program could involve as little as 20 minutes of drills and exercise two times a week. "There's a whole initiative across the country centered around concussion prevention," she said. "In the same fashion, I'd like to bring to light ACL injuries and programs to try to prevent them."
Name: Karen Sutton, MD
Title: Assistant Professor of Orthopaedics and Rehabilitation
Area of expertise: Orthopaedic surgery, sports medicine
Place of birth: Washington, DC
College: Duke University
Med School: University of Maryland School of Medicine
Training: Residency in orthopaedic surgery at Yale; fellowship in orthopaedic sports medicine at Massachusetts General Hospital/Harvard School of Medicine; mini-fellowship at Boston Children’s Hospital in pediatric sports orthopaedic surgery
Family: Husband, Gregg Wysocki and son, Luke Wysocki, 11 months
What is most challenging to you in academic medicine? Being on the innovative end of clinical procedures and research.
What is most rewarding? Working with residents and medical students. Oftentimes their questions as we are seeing or operating on patients pushes me to become a more evidence-based physician and sparks research ideas in the process.
What do you like most about your practice? I truly enjoy seeing young athletes prevail through an injury and push themselves to be stronger competitors in the end.
Personal interests or pastimes: I enjoy triathlons, marathons, hiking and experiencing my son’s milestones!
Last book read: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
What would you do to improve our clinical environment if you had a magic wand? I would have a large building with outdoor space to incorporate training programs for patients/athletes. It would include not only injury care, but also preventive measures to assess athletes for their risk of anterior cruciate ligament rupture and injuries in general. I would have athletic trainers and physical therapists working with me every day to better the outcome of my patients.