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Dr. Lars Engebretsen of the International Olympic Committee Kicked Off the Eighth Annual Vail Scientific Summit with Keynote Address Emphasizing Mental Health

The professor of orthopaedic surgery at Oslo University Clinic in Norway stressed the importance of injury prevention and care for mental health in his opening remarks at the annual event hosted by Steadman Philippon Research Institute 

VAIL, Colo. – The 8th annual Vail Scientific Summit (VSS) wasted no time in bringing out the best of the best in medicine and scientific research. Dr. Lars Engebretsen, M.D., Ph.D., Head of Medical Sciences for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), delivered the keynote address to speakers, presenters, sponsors and friends at the opening night on Aug. 20. The Summit is a summer highlight for both The Steadman Clinic and Steadman Philippon Research Institute (SPRI). 

The 2023 edition of VSS, which held two full days of presentations, panels and group discussions on Aug. 21 and 22, focused on “Clinical Translation: The intersection of science and medicine for better clinical outcomes with rapid translation.”

Dr. Engebretsen addressed the entire audience on the first evening and focused his message on injury prevention, but not just physical injuries suffered in athletic contests or other daily routines. He put special emphasis on the ever-growing rise of mental health issues in athletes.

“When I address groups like this, I generally talk about the need to prevent concussions, major knee injuries, neck injuries and the other types of injuries we often see suffered in Olympic competition,” said Dr. Engebretsen. “But there is another area that needs just as much, if not more focus in today’s environment, and that is mental health.

“There has been a tendency for our medical staffs and research clinics to dive into methods to prevent specific injury issues such as torn anterior cruciate ligaments (ACLs) and stuff like that,” continued Dr. Engebretsen. “And that is good and very necessary and we have taken major steps in tackling those issues. But in order to effectively help prevent these types of injuries, we must also have an overall picture of our mental health, of the things in our lives that affect how we are thinking and what we are doing.”

In a separate interview the following day, Dr. Engebretsen expanded on his comments concerning the need for more attention on mental health aspects. He mentioned a story about how a ski team doctor addressed his downhill skiers as they were training for the Olympics a number of years ago.

“The doctor was talking to the downhill skiers, many of whom had suffered and rehabbed their way back from torn ACL injuries,” related Dr. Engebretsen. “He was saying that you have to get your focus away from your girlfriend, or from your quarrel with your coach or other teammates, or from your economic issues while you are training or competing in races. You have to be more focused and take away everything from the outside that affects your mindset. And while his advice was solid, that's a very difficult thing for young people to do. And it is even more difficult in today’s world with all the ways technology has taken over people’s lives.”

Another stumbling block to preventing mental health issues from clouding or hurting performance is the fact that unlike most knee, ankle and hip injuries, every mental health issue is unique to each person. There is not a handbook with specific instructions for doctors and athletes/patients to follow. But, when treatment is successful and the athlete is focused on the task at hand, the results are usually pretty evident.

“If you are able tackle these mental health issues, you will win more competitions and more gold medals,” said Dr. Engebretsen. “There will be more medalists in general. But the big issue here is not just winning medals. It is your overall health and not just a knee or shoulder that needs to be rehabilitated. Your mental health is a much more complicated issue and may need a longer time to recuperate. There's such a big distance between an athlete’s highs and lows. 

“If we are to tackle mental health, in both sports and in life in general, we have to focus first on being able to have a good life,” continued Dr. Engebretsen. “And that is something that sports can actually help bring to people. We can help them stay focused on their sport but allow them to have the time and perspective to get things right in their lives away from the competition. That's the same thing we all have to do when we tackle our general mental health issues in life while we pursue our professions and our own personal family lives.”

Dr. Engebretsen noted recent examples of world-class athletes dropping out of Olympic competition due solely to mental health issues.

“This is not a silent issue anymore,” said Dr. Engebretsen. “Some of our finest young athletes are coming forward with their own personal issues.”

“There are many ways to approach this,” concluded Dr. Engebretsen, “but now we do have some tools that we are using to be able to help athletes with mental health issues. And, more importantly, to help people of all ages and athletic ability to address their own personal issues.”

For further information, contact Lynda Sampson, vice president of external affairs at The Steadman Clinic and SPRI (lsampson@sprivail.org).

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