SI Vault
William Oscar Johnson
June 15, 1981
Getting an injured athlete back on his feet in a hurry, within reason, is the essence of Dr. Hans Kraus' technique
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June 15, 1981

Spray 'em, Play 'em

Getting an injured athlete back on his feet in a hurry, within reason, is the essence of Dr. Hans Kraus' technique

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There is an aura of energy about the man. He is small (about 5'3") and he is old by most standards—he will turn 76 this year. Yet the impression he gives is one of sizzle and spunk, exuberance, confidence, great physical strength, high-voltage enthusiasm, bursting vitality.

This is Hans Kraus, the Austrian-born physician, skier, mountaineer, rock climber and proponent of physical fitness. He has been a leading practitioner of sports medicine since the 1930s, when an athlete with a badly sprained ankle would commonly find himself clapped into a heavy plaster cast and sentenced to a month of immobility. That would be followed by another eight weeks of slow, painful reconditioning therapy before he could expect to get around normally again. In the intervening decades, Kraus has devised techniques for treating such serious injuries that often have an athlete back playing his game within days.

Kraus was an advocate—an evangelist—of physical fitness long before the U.S. embarked on its fitness binge. He shocked one President (Eisenhower) in 1955 with a study demonstrating that American children were weaklings compared with the kids of Europe, and he was a White Household name in the early 1960s when he treated another President (Kennedy) for a debilitating and excruciatingly painful chronic back condition. Kraus became famous as "The Back Doctor" after Backache, Stress and Tension became a popular book in 1965. He could become even more widely known after his Sports Injuries (Playboy Press, $11.95) is published next month. A friend suggested recently that the new book may be a self-help text of such vast appeal that it will become a kind of "Spock for Jocks." Kraus vehemently disagrees—not because he resists the idea of multimillions in sales, but because he disapproves of some of Dr. Benjamin Spock's permissive child-rearing theories.

It is not only Spock who elicits Kraus' criticism. For example, Kraus says, "The average coach knows more than many men in the medical profession about truly efficient reconditioning of sports injuries. Always I have learned more from coaches than from surgeons about this area of medicine." Although Kraus is revered by many of his colleagues, he decries them for ignoring—or avoiding—one vitally important area of orthopedic treatment. "The human muscular system is a wide blank field in medicine in general," he says. "It is poorly taught in medical schools. People specializing in orthopedic medicine just aren't interested in muscles. That's because the big breakthroughs in the field have focused on surgery. There have been tremendous things done in traumatic surgery, but that doesn't mean that surgery should be applied to everything. Exercise as a treatment has been given little but lip service."

Unlike many other physicians, Kraus considers early, properly executed exercise to be effective for the treatment of most orthopedic injuries. "I learned as a young man that immobilization isn't necessary to healing," he says. "Ever since then I have been an enemy of immobilization and bed rest. I have seen too many patients who were sent to bed healthy and got up sick. Almost every injury heals quicker and better with movement."

Not all experts agree with Kraus, among them Dr. James A. Nicholas of New York, the founder of the Institute of Sports Medicine, who has known him for decades. "He's a wonderful man, thoroughly reputable and, certainly, in the area of physical fitness, he was a pioneer," Nicholas says. "He laid the basis for the United States' great interest in fitness. He was the major influence in arranging a transition between Old World and New World views. He was a pioneering advocate in America of the European approach to physical conditioning as a major force in sports medicine. The emphasis was on non-surgical, manipulative programs based on scientific methods. However, when he implies that we depend too much on surgery, he is wrong. He is expressing a view that had some validity before 1950. But there has been an explosion in the field of sports medicine in recent years, and with it there have been tremendous surgical advances. The implication of what he is saying is that he is not aware of some of the great changes that have occurred in the field."

But Dr. Willi Nagler, professor and chairman of the department of physical medicine and rehabilitation at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center, an old friend of Kraus', brooks no criticism of the doctor. "Dr. Kraus may be a controversial figure to people who are very orthodox in their practice of orthopedic medicine," he says. "I don't think that he has fallen behind in his understanding and recognition of new developments in the field. His philosophy is that there is never any need to rush into surgery, that it should be done pretty much as a last resort after optimum benefits have been derived from other forms of treatment and therapy."

Kraus, whose offices are on Manhattan's East Side, has treated high-powered celebrities over the years, including Arthur Godfrey, Lowell Thomas and Katharine Hepburn. He also treats "doormen and cleaning ladies, bellhops and cab drivers, if they need me." Kraus' longtime rock-climbing friend, New York attorney James P. McCarthy, recalls a day in the 1950s when the doctor's calendar of appointments indicated that one "Mrs. A. Khan" was waiting in his office. McCarthy says, "It turned out to be Mrs. Ali Khan, who was then Rita Hayworth. But Hans never went to the movies in those days, and I'm not sure he knew whom he had treated until someone told him later."

Kraus' patients have also included thousands of athletes, most of them of the recreational, weekend variety. The best-known sports figure was probably skier Billy Kidd. After Kidd won America's first gold medal in the FIS world championships, in 1970, he appeared on the cover of LIFE and presented Kraus with an autographed copy of the magazine with the inscription "Thanks for putting me here."

Despite his expertise in sports medicine, Kraus has never been a physician for a major league team in the U.S. "I think that being a team doctor involves an automatic conflict of interest," he says. "What is good for the team isn't necessarily good for the athlete. You want to make him well, but the coach wants him back playing—and the athlete himself might want himself back playing—when he should not do it."

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