The history of sports medicine

Sports and exercise medicine, often known as SEM, is the most recently recognised medical specialty in the UK, becoming established as a faculty by the Royal College of Physicians just ten years ago. Yet the history of sports medicine is a lengthy one and SEM’s reach in the general public is extensive, from the very highest level of athletic endeavour to those leading a purely sedentary life.

The aim of sports and exercise medicine is to deliver expert care in injury management and illness, physical activity and sport. Sports medicine can be applied to an individual or team’s performance at any level, both in the prevention and rehabilitation of injury. Exercise as a tool for health is now heavily promoted as physical inactivity is one of the leading problems affecting public health in the UK.

Sports medicine in ancient times

Hippocrates (469-399 BC) is described as the ‘Father of Medicine’ and is probably the most famous of the Greek physicians. He was thought to be an army physician at one point, but the works of medical literature attributed to him seem to be devoted more to the description of athletic injuries.

Wrestling was very popular in Greek times and most young men would join the palaestra or wrestling school. Another popular sport was pankration, a mixture of boxing, judo and wrestling, and the diagnosis and treatment of injury that Hippocrates described relates closely to injury types common to these sports.

Hippocrates learned his art from Herodocus, who was a physician, but was also known as a ‘trainer of athletes’. Herodocus is credited with the use of therapeutic exercise as a way to help with the healing of injury.

However, the link between medicine and sport in ancient times is best exemplified by Galen, a doctor in the second century AD, who could claim the title of father of sports medicine. His first post was as doctor and surgeon to the gladiators in Pergamum before moving to Rome where he became the personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius.

The establishment of sports medicine

In modern times, the establishment of sports medicine can be traced back to the 1928 Winter Olympics, held in St Moritz. A committee was formed to organise an International Congress of Sports Medicine. Not just for the treatment of sports-related injuries, but also to develop the concept of preventing its occurrence.

The Olympics were key to the development of sports medicine in modern times and in 1968, Dr J.C. Kennedy organised a team of doctors to accompany the Canadian athletic team to the 1968 Summer Olympics and in 1972 he was made the Chief Medical Office for the Olympics that were held in Munich.

The future of sports medicine

Scientific advances, in the form of developing more advanced sports equipment that lessens the chance of injury, new technology to more accurately diagnose and, from there, more specialised care and innovative therapies to treat and rehabilitate, are the future of sports medicine.