Football today is all but unrecognizable compared to the brutal, often lethal game first played at the turn of the 20th Century. But while leather helmets and the inverted wing have given way to impact sensors and the RPO, there is one thing above all that drives rule changes, equipment improvements, and overall football innovation: Safety.
More than a century later, football is changing more rapidly than ever, thanks to exponential advancements in areas like data and analytics. And just as the box score has matured beyond simple stats like yards and QB rating, medical technology and biometrics have completely overhauled the way teams assess their rosters and how players protect their most valuable asset—their own body.
Technology and innovation may help teams optimize player performance on the field, but in the face of troves of data determining the probability of success on every play, the dreaded “non-contact injury” remains all but undefeated. While the statistics on the field skyrocket, the numbers in the trainer’s room stay mostly stagnant. More often than not, a player who suffers a significant knee injury will require up to a full year on the sidelines to return to the field and even more time to get back to the top of their game—a standard that has endured for years as every other magic number in football improves by the day.
Over the past two decades, knee issues have sent more players to the injury report than any other type of injury. Surveyed players consistently list knee injuries as their top medical concern, from ligament damage and tears to degenerative conditions like osteoarthritis. With billions of dollars at stake every time the center snaps the ball to his quarterback, keeping players healthy has become a top priority for every high school, college, and professional team in America. More than anything else, player health has the most outsized impact on wins and losses, salary caps, championships, careers, and entire legacies.
Football and medicine are more intertwined than ever, and perhaps no single player better represents the modern game than Laurent Duvernay-Tardif, football’s first-ever dual-threat OG/MD—Offensive Guard and Doctor of Medicine. The star lineman was recently named one of Sports Illustrated’s 2020 Sportspeople of the Year thanks to his standout play on the field and his incredible medical and humanitarian work off the field. Duvernay-Tardif made headlines earlier this year when he opted out of playing football in order to work as a frontline healthcare provider in the face of the devastating COVID-19 pandemic.
Duvernay-Tardif’s commitment to medicine began long before this season. The Canadian-born Duvernay-Tardif was raised in Montréal, Quebec, where he made two similarly surprising decisions as a young man: Eschewing hockey for football and nearly giving athletics up altogether to pursue his first true love, medicine.
“For me, medicine was the perfect balance between pure science, physiology, and anatomy,” says Duvernay-Tardiff, “But also the human aspect—psychology, making sure that every treatment plan is built and adapted for every single patient. That was really what drove me into medicine.”
As the former sixth-round draft pick earned accolades on the field, he received his medical degree from McGill University in 2018, trading his pads for a stethoscope each offseason. But any football player will tell you they are always just one play away from ending up on the trainer’s table or worse—and any medical school graduate will tell you that the most difficult patient to treat is often yourself. During a Week 5 game in the 2018 season, Duvernay-Tardif suffered a serious leg injury that led to surgery on his fractured fibula and months of frustrating rehabilitation for the resulting ligament damage in his all-important knee.
During my rehab process, I hit a plateau,” says Duvernay-Tardif, “And although I was close, I was not able to get back to 100 percent. At some point, I felt like my knee’s biomechanics needed to be addressed and its alignment was not completely restored. The naked human eye cannot see what is going on inside the knee. This is why I got in contact with KneeKG.”
The KneeKG is a cutting-edge medical diagnostic device that helps doctors assess the health of a patient’s knee while the patient is in motion and bearing weight—a revolutionary advancement for anyone suffering from knee pain, but especially for athletes like Duvernay-Tardif. To do their job on the field, offensive linemen require a rock-solid base under their body to help them explode into every block, as well as perfect footwork for quick bursts of lateral speed and agility. All of that is hard enough to do as a 320-pound man, let alone one with a damaged knee.
The KneeKG was created by Canadian Academic Centers and Emovi, a Montreal-based medical device company dedicated to knee kinesiography, or the assessment and tracking of the knee joint during movement. In order to assess the function of the knee joint, diagnostic tools need to be precise, reliable, and eliminate primary sources of measurement errors, such as soft tissue artifacts from skin and muscle.
The KneeKG is the first product able to attain and provide that level of information on the knee joint.
Knee health is vital to pain management and quality of life for all patients—not just pro athletes—because knees bear the brunt of the impact from each step you take every day. According to Dr. Michael Suk, Professor of Orthopaedic Surgery and Chair of the Musculoskeletal Institute at Geisinger Health System in Danville, PA, the KneeKG can provide physicians with a more complete diagnostic picture of a complicated joint.
“Knee pain is one of the most common complaints that physicians hear from patients,” says Suk. “Tools that can give us a better understanding of the knee in active motion and throughout the gait cycle is a new frontier in diagnosing and treating the underlying causes of knee pain. KneeKG shows us how the knee moves with its natural biomechanics at a level of accuracy that is not possible with other tools.”
While traditional diagnostic tools like X-rays and MRI scans can give physicians an idea about the structure of a patient’s knee, it remains a static image; whereas the KneeKG is specifically designed to measure the biomechanical markers, health, and alignment of a patient’s knee while it is engaged and in motion. This critical distinction gives healthcare professionals a clearer picture of the inner workings of an injured knee joint to help them define the right treatment plan—and can provide the game’s only on-field doctor the data he needs to push past a plateau and jumpstart his rehab.
“With the information provided by the KneeKG,” says Duvernay-Tardif, “My team and I were able to design a complete treatment plan, with rehab exercise that allowed me to get back on the field, pain-free, and with the same level of performance that I had before the injury.”
Dr. Robert M. Menighini, a leading orthopedic surgeon specializing in total knee replacements at Indiana University Health, agrees that the “KneeKG is uniquely positioned to transform patient care through optimizing outcomes and function, reducing unwarranted interventions and focusing an efficient treatment plan to provide value to patients, physicians, and healthcare organizations.”
While the KneeKG helped Duvernay-Tardif resume his playing career, the long-term benefits will help support his health and wellness for his upcoming second act as a doctor—or for anyone suffering from one of the most common sources of chronic pain.
“My personal experience with KneeKG was as a professional athlete, but a lot of people can benefit from it because millions of people experience knee pain at some point in their lifetime,” says Duvernay-Tardif. “Over 40% of sports-related injuries are knee injuries, so it is a big burden whether you’re an athlete or not. Knee osteoarthritis is also a public health issueBeing able to better diagnose what’s going on and build a treatment plan that allows you to go back on the field or to do your daily walk quicker is going to eventually help us from a public health standpoint—to have a population that’s more physically active, and to prevent conditions like obesity, diabetes, or coronary heart disease.”
Traumatic knee injuries, like the one Duvernay-Tardif sustained on the football field, are obviously not as common for the general population, but knee pain is a widespread complaint from patients from all walks of life. Joseph Zeni, Ph.D., a biomechanical researcher and associate professor at Rutgers University, says that one out of five Americans suffers from knee pain—and that the causes are as diverse as the patients themselves.
“The most common knee issues are related to aging, injury, obesity, disease, or repeated stress on the joint,” says Zeni. “This poses myriad challenges to treating clinicians, who often see patients with knee joint conditions without a definitive and clear cause of symptoms. The root causes of symptoms for many patients arises from abnormal biomechanics, and clinicians need an accurate dynamic diagnostic tool to measure knee motion.”
For people who have plateaued in their rehab like Duvernay-Tardif did or feel too much discomfort to integrate more activity into their daily life, the KneeKG is a powerful tool for healthcare providers to support patients in pain. Medical conditions like diabetes and coronary heart disease are alarmingly common in the U.S. and will only become more prevalent as our population gets older and accrues more chronic problems like knee osteoarthritis. And while a more active lifestyle can help treat these diseases or prevent them altogether, for many patients, it is simply not that easy.
“To be physically active, you’ve got to be pain-free,” says Duvernay-Tardiff, “And that’s what KneeKG gives you: An opportunity to better know what’s going on inside your knee joint and to better treat it, to get back on your feet as quickly as possible.”
Statistics and numbers are woven into the fabric of football, but in the modern game, those same numbers are rewritten nearly every week. At the turn of the last century, football didn’t even have the forward pass. Now, the most hallowed passing records in the sport fall like dominoes weekly, and the stats of our favorite players from the past seem puny in comparison. Standout seasons from the past, like tossing 50 TDs in one year, are now the modern standard. And standards from the past, like the 12-month recovery time for an ACL injury, will be shattered and redefined—thanks to game-changing medical devices like the KneeKG.