Allison Schroeder, MD, is a physiatrist specializing in sports medicine and assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation (PM&R). She is head team doctor for Penn Hills High School sports, one of UPMC Sports Medicine’s more than 75 partner organizations. Both in the clinic and on the sidelines, Dr. Schroeder works hand-in-hand with athletic trainers, physical therapists, and other colleagues to get athletes and active people back to doing what they love.
Q: How did you choose this profession?
A: I grew up in a small town loving sports and playing a ton of them, and I also developed a passion for science. While running varsity track at Notre Dame as an undergraduate, I was fortunate not to have suffered severe injury, but I saw many of my teammates go through the rehab process and get back to running. Throughout my athletic career, I heard many athletes told they should probably give up their sport, but I wanted to be part of proving that’s rarely necessary with the right help.
I started to shadow our team doctor at Notre Dame and began to see how his knowledge of sports and science could help people, and it sparked my interest in sports medicine. Early in medical school, I took a “careers in medicine” test to help guide my decision into a residency, and I matched with physical medicine and rehabilitation over internal medicine and orthopaedic surgery. Not knowing anything about PM&R at the time, I looked into it and decided it was the perfect route for me.
Q: What is a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor or physiatrist?
A: In the world of sports medicine, PM&R doctors (or physiatrists) perform many of the same diagnoses and nonsurgical procedures as primary care sports medicine doctors, but our medical education and training has a slightly different focus. The practice of PM&R focuses on musculoskeletal injury to the peripheral joints (those in the arms and legs), among other things, and is about helping patients regain functional ability and improve their quality of life.
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Physiatry is a very hands-on, active practice with a strong focus on ultrasound. We diagnose — and provide nonsurgical treatment — to patients of all ages and abilities in the clinical setting as part of the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and sometimes serve as team doctors for local sports organizations, too.
Q: What types of patients and injuries do you see?
A: We see patients of all ages and ability levels, whether they’re high-level athletes or just staying active by going on walks or to the gym. If someone has an injury that is keeping them from doing anything they want to do — whether that’s walking around their neighborhood, working a physically demanding job, or playing elite sports — we will see them.
Injuries to the peripheral joints (shoulder, elbow, wrist, hand, hip, knee, ankle, foot) are what PM&R sports medicine doctors see most often. It can be an injury to the muscles or tendons, or to the cartilage as in arthritis, or to the bones like a stress fracture. We’ll see patients with acute and traumatic injuries that happened recently, or those with overuse and chronic injuries that developed over time.
Q: How do you collaborate with athletic trainers (ATs) as a team doctor for Penn Hills?
A: It’s all about the team approach. The 2021-22 school year is my first year as team doctor for Penn Hills High School. I’m on the sidelines of every football game watching for acute injuries. Throughout the week, I’m in constant contact with our athletic trainers who know our student-athletes well and are very in tune to who may need to be evaluated.
I’m available to the ATs if they think a student-athlete needs further imaging, a more detailed evaluation, or if they’re considering holding them out of their sport due to an injury. I see athletes in clinic or at the school, and I always have my portable ultrasound machine at the ready to use on the sidelines for a quick evaluation.
Q: What treatment methods do you use in PM&R?
A: When a patient comes to us with an injury or condition, we first conduct a comprehensive evaluation (including medical history and physical exam) and, in some cases, use imaging to determine the problem. That’s the first and biggest step, as we can’t treat a problem appropriately without identifying it!
From a PM&R point of view, treatment could consist of several approaches. We provide comprehensive treatment, and it is always specific to the injury and the patient’s goals. Rest is occasionally a treatment, while collaboration with physical therapy for strengthening and stretching the muscles and tendons around or involved in the injury is probably our most common go-to. I’m in constant contact with our expert physical therapists (PTs) throughout my patients’ rehab and recovery.
Most overuse injuries we see are the result of poor mechanics, so our PTs work with patients to break bad habits, move smoother, and optimize strength and flexibility. Occasionally injections — such as a corticosteroid, dextrose prolotherapy, or platelet-rich plasma — will accompany PT to help reactivate the healing process and get patients through PT with less pain. We can also perform minimally invasive procedures under ultrasound guidance, including needle tenotomy, percutaneous ultrasonic tenotomy, or tendon scraping procedures for overuse tendon injuries.
There are also times that we feel a condition may require surgery, so we collaborate with our surgical colleagues. Patients may consult with or have arthroscopic surgery performed by an orthopaedic surgeon.
Q: Where do you see patients?
A: I currently see patients at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex on Pittsburgh’s South Side and at UPMC at Oxford Drive in Monroeville — as well as at our partner high schools. My office hours will expand soon to other locations, including the UPMC Outpatient Center in Bethel Park.
While I see patients of all ages and activity levels, my specific expertise includes using musculoskeletal ultrasound for diagnostic and interventional purposes (including orthobiologic injections and advanced ultrasound-guided procedures), developing comprehensive treatment plans to return patients to exercise or sports a quickly as possible following injury, and caring for the injured runner.
In the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we provide all-encompassing care and collaborate with the entire care team, including physical therapists from UPMC Centers for Rehab Services, to help patients improve function of an injured area, as well as overall strength and wellness.
To learn more or schedule an appointment, please visit our website or call 412-692-4400.
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At the UPMC Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, we strive to improve your function after injury or illness. Through inpatient therapy at the UPMC Rehabilitation Institute and outpatient therapy at clinics throughout western Pennsylvania, we help patients recover from functional, pain-related, and neurological conditions. The Department of PM&R is a leader in research, therapy, and advanced rehabilitation technology – not only dedicated to providing you with exceptional clinical care, but focused on developing new technologies and treatments to help you achieve mobility and maintain independence.