Exclusive with Dr. David Chao, Former NFL Head Team Doctor , Orthopedist


First, tell us about your new site and work as an Orthopedist!

Well, my main work is still as an orthopedist – surgeries, etc.  But the new site is ProFootballDoc  run by the San Diego Tribune. I live in San Diego and was the team orthopedist for San Diego. They contacted me to work with them on the site – they wanted a more national offering. The site offers injury updates for fantasy football players and fans.

What brought you to this point and how did you get so much popularity on social media as an orthopedist!

Blame it on my wife – for all of this. When I stopped being the orthopedist for the Chargers after seventeen years, I was watching the football games and hearing the announcers talk about an ankle injury when I could see the player blew out his knee the play before. I was yelling at the announcers on the tv when my wife told me to tell it to someone who cares.

So, she later signed me up on Twitter – I didn’t know anything about it really -I’m not on any other social media. I played wth Twitter and it just grew organically (now to over 60,000 followers – @ProFootballDoc ). I made friends doing it in the media and enjoyed it. I can’t tell you now how many people tell me they follow me for football injury information but don’t want to tell their friends about me so they can win at fantasy football.

How do you discern the injury information you talk about now?

I can tell you I never reveal any information about players I work with or trainers – I don’t talk to them because of  HIPPA laws, etc. But I can look at video – it’s an impression, not a diagnosis. It’s the mechanism of an injury. I’ve been doing this for seventeen years and looked at video for seventeen years of players who were injured. I worked with players on the field, in the locker rooms…. It’s a matter of reverse-engineering injuries and, when I was with the team, seeing how to try and prevent them by doing so.

So, getting into the practice of preventing injuries. As someone who follows the Steelers, they are known for very physical camps. Two schools of thought – one that you suffer more injuries by being too physical, the second is that you can’t learn to prevent injuries as a player if you’re not used to receiving contact. Your thoughts?

Well, like anything in life it’s a double-edged sword. Contact is needed – but how much is too much? When you have a test you study the night before but you don’t stay up all night, right? There’s a happy medium. You need to practice and stay healthy. That’s where sports science comes into play.

In terms of injury prevention, how can teams improve in helping prevent player injuries?

You do what you can – and it really starts in the athlete selection on the way in. Are they injury prone? And then the right strength and conditioning and monitoring players.

For example, it’s not an accident when a team gets a number of injuries at one position. You get a couple of injuries due to bad luck. The remaining guys there are then more prone to injury. The new guys – they are less talented – that’s why they are second-stringers. Their engines are also revving at a much higher RPM – trying too hard to get the job done. And those guys are often asked to do more- to take more reps now and often they play on special teams

Are teams transparent enough in discussing/revealing injury information?

It depends on where you sit at the table. On one’s perspective. As a player, it’s too much. They wonder why my medical information is out there. It’s their information. But if you’re a fan, you want more – it’s never enough.

Coaches have their own styles. Some purposely mislead, some inadvertently do. But I don’t blame the coaches, they’re doing what they need to do to get a competitive advantage,

When I was  team physician in the NFL I wanted medical tents on the sidelines. Now they have them. But now that I’m on the other side of the fence, I don’t like them. I was all for it in the past – if you had to give a player a groin wrap, or they were emotional – it made sense. Even if someone just needs to relieve himself – you want that privacy as a player. I remember one player got in trouble for kneeling on the sideline and peeing. But what can you do? You can’t run into the locker room and miss plays…

As a team physician, tell me a bit about the conflicts you experience as a team employee who is also the player’s physician? And how you work with players that are afraid to tell the team about their injuries?

The relationship with the patient is very important, With all respect to the Harvard Health Study on the NFL players, it was NFLPA funded and suggested physicians should be independent. Well, you need a relationship with the player – to build that trust. Especially in the heat of battle. The relationship is where it’s at if you want the players to trust you and get the truth from them.

I can see how people can be divided by it. But it hasn’t been difficult for me. You’re paid by the team, but I looked at it like I worked for the players. It’s my job to take care of the player. The only murky area is when I am working with a starter to get them on the field, that’s fine. But when I’m working with a lesser player to get them healthy so the team can cut them – just don’t tell me you are going to cut them. I can’t know that. For me it doesn’t matter who they are, my job is to get them healthy.

Where do you play a part in terms of injury prevention?

Trainers and physicians need to see things eye-to-eye and work hand-in-hand. But on rehab and general conditioning – that’s the trainers. The fundamental medical decisions are done by the physicians. We’re not employed full time though – the trainers are really the center of the medical world. They are in the locker rooms and with the players almost 24/7. We’re both indispensable but trainers are the center of it all.

Lastly, any medical advancements you see having an impact in your work with players?

All the time, there are incremental advancements. Biological solutions are popular. There are a lot of research projects on various advancements – I have a couple myself. But it’s all incremental work.

I am excited about the new Chief Medical Advisor in charge there at the NFL. In the past the NFL seemed very political in it’s medical responses. But recently on things like CTE and medical marijuana he seems more open.

Read more by former Steelers via the book Steelers Takeaways: Player Memories Through the Decades To order, just click on the book:

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