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Innovations in sports science help Miami Dolphins stay healthy

When Nolan Carroll gets home after a long day, the Dolphins cornerback is like the rest of us — he just wants a place to stretch out and relax.

Of course, there is one major difference. Carroll doesn’t collapse onto a loveseat or Barcalounger.

He slips on a gas mask and crawls into his hyperbaric chamber — a futuristic cross between a space pod and coffin — where he naps for hours at a time.

Carroll is one of several Dolphins players who owns a chamber, an oxygen-pumping tube believed to speed the healing process.

“The more I use it, the better my body feels,” Carroll said. “Every time we’re at practice, it [feels] like the first day.”

Once viewed with a jaundiced eye, the use of hyperbaric oxygen therapy is apparently here to stay.

It’s just one of several recent advancements to sports medicine that have sliced injury rehabilitation times to levels previously thought impossible.

The evidence is everywhere. The Dolphins, in particular, are in the midst of their healthiest season in recent history.

Talking about a team’s health is sort of like mentioning a perfect game to pitcher while it’s in progress. Bring it up to Dolphins head athletic trainer Kevin O’Neill, on the job for the past 17 seasons, and he’s quick to cross himself.

Dr. Bryson Lesniak of the UM Health Sports Medicine program — who is not affiliated with the Dolphins organization — acknowledges a certain amount of luck is involved. Certain injuries are unavoidable. But he also believes the trend is a reflection of breakthroughs in prevention and treatment.

“There are a lot of things that they’re doing behind the scenes that certainly are a large component of maintaining athlete health,” Lesniak said.

“With proper recognition of injuries when they happen, with immediate attention to them, and things athletes are doing before, during and after workouts, the return to play is more rapid than ever before.”

Taking advantage

A perfect example is Terrell Suggs, a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens who could get back on the field this week, just five months after undergoing surgery for a torn Achilles’ tendon. That injury previously required a yearlong rehab.

Suggs elected to have an innovative procedure intended to accelerate the recovery process, and it seems to have worked. Furthermore, researchers have found that instead of immobilizing a reconstructed ligament or tendon, the mending joints actually benefit from passive motion, Lesniak said.

In 2009, former Steelers receiver Hines Ward was able to play in Super Bowl XLIII just two weeks after spraining the medial collateral ligament of his right knee. Ward elected to receive a platelet-rich plasma injection, a new treatment many believe stimulates the healing of bone and soft tissue.

And Peyton Manning underwent a controversial stem-cell procedure for his neck injury in September 2011. The treatment, which used Manning’s own fat cells to regenerate nerves around his neck, is not legal in the United States, so he had it done in Europe. The therapy’s effectiveness is still up for debate, Lesniak said, and apparently did Manning little good, as he still missed all of 2011.

The Dolphins have made news by what hasn’t happened. They have placed just one starter on the season-ending injured reserve list through the first seven weeks of the season.

That was guard Artis Hicks, who presumably injured his neck during the preseason. The Dolphins claim his injury predated his time in Miami; Hicks disputes that, a sticking point in a salary disagreement.

(David Garrard did undergo arthroscopic knee injury in the preseason, but it is believed the Dolphins cut him not for health but financial reasons.)

That aside, Miami has managed to avoid the catastrophic breaks and ruptures that can wreck seasons.

Including Hicks, Miami’s projected 53-man roster has missed a total of just 13 games (out of more than a possible 300) because of injuries thus far.

“We’re fortunate, but like anything else, it’s a collaborative effort,” Dolphins coach Joe Philbin said. “I think that, A.: You have to credit the work ethic of the players in terms of their preparation for the season, and, B.: Our strength-and-conditioning guys have done a good job.’’

In that way, the Dolphins are a lot like the 2008 team, which lost just a handful of players — none of whom were stars — to injured reserved all season. Not coincidentally, it was the last time they made the playoffs.

Rather than credit advances in medicine for the team’s good health, O’Neill instead points to a change in league rules.

Teams can no longer hold training camp “two-a-days” (twice-daily, full-contact practices), and during the season they’re allowed to hit once a week.

“I think that’s going to pay dividends down the road, and I think it takes a veteran player and potentially adds more time on his timeline,” O’Neill said.

Shaking it up

But there’s another possibility: Could the secret be in the team’s magic shakes? Probably not, but the berry-flavored, glycogen-infused cocktails that wait for Dolphins players after each practice certainly don’t hurt.

Darren Krein, the team’s strength-and-conditioning coach, came up with the idea before the start of camp. A mixture of fruit, carbohydrate puree and protein, the shake replenishes the natural energy lost during intense workouts under the Florida sun.

“We try to make them understand a little bit of the science behind it,” Krein said. “We tell them, ‘If you take this, you’ll feel better tomorrow a lot faster than if you don’t.’ ”

And its consumption is mandatory — a first for most players.

“I’ve got no idea what’s in there, but it tastes good,” said Matt Moore, the Dolphins’ backup quarterback. “It is nice to come off the practice field and get something right back in you.”

Moore is an old-school player. He’s not into supplements and he can’t stand the cold tub. And he certainly never considered shelling out the $10,000 needed for his own hyperbaric chamber.

But Carroll, Richard Marshall and Jake Long are among his teammates who have — and they love it.

Although it has been around for decades, hyperbaric oxygen therapy has really come in vogue in recent years.

Remember in 2004 when Terrell Owens made a miraculous recovery from an ugly ankle injury in time to play in the Super Bowl? Owens credited the hours he spent in his chamber.

Here’s how it works: The air we breathe is roughly 20 percent pure; hyperbaric therapy pumps in pressurized oxygen at 100 percent purity, delivering 10 to 15 times more air to the chamber’s occupant, according to Baptist Health South Florida’s website.

That greatly increases the amount of oxygen blood delivers to the tissues, helping wounds, infections and injuries heal faster. A treatment usually lasts around two hours, and advocates of the therapy say just one or two sessions can bring results.

“It’s like science fiction; you’re sleeping in a bubble,” Marshall said. “At the same time, it does work.”

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