Dr. Mark Sontag, MD
Dr. Mark J. Sontag has been practicing Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation on the Peninsula since 1983. At age 17 he received an American Cancer Society Award to investigate a novel idea in Cancer Research. He completed Northwestern University's Honors six year medical program in 1983. Following an internship in Internal Medicine at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center, Dr. Sontag completed his residency in Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Stanford University Medical Center. He is board certified in both Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation and Neuromuscular and Electrodiagnostic Medicine. Dr. Sontag is a Qualified Medical Examiner. He served on the board of Directors for the California Society of Industrial Medicine and Surgery.
In 1991 Dr. Sontag founded and served as medical director of the Sequoia Hospital Rehabilitation Unit and the Sequoia Hospital Occupational Health Services. He also founded the ReMedy Medical Group in 2008.
Dr. Sontag was the team physiatrist for the San Francisco 49ers from 1990 to 1991 and the San Francisco Giants from 1995 through 2001. He served as the team spine and pain physician for the San Jose Sharks from 1991 to 2014 and the Oakland Raiders and the San Jose Earthquakes from 1995 to 2005. He has also provided sports medicine coverage for the Menlo College athletic teams. Dr. Sontag cares for many of the World's elite athletes including Olympians, NFL, NBA, NHL, PGA and National Baseball Players.
"Pain is such an uncomfortable feeling that even a tiny amount of it is enough to ruin every enjoyment" - Will Rogers
In 1999 Dr. Sontag again showed his dedication to Peninsula patients in founding SPARCmed, a functional restoration pain management clinic, created to help chronic pain patients improve their quality of life.
With multiple publications to his credit in sports, spine and pain management, Dr. Sontag focuses his extensive experience in spine, sports, cumulative trauma, repetitive strain injuries, orthopedic, neurologic disorders and pain management.
A devoted father and husband, Dr. Sontag coached 32 of his children’s sports teams. He is currently writing a world history book and a book to assist physicians in starting their own practice.
Mark Sontag: Hockey Doc
- Jack Corrigan | Northwestern Alumni Life | Spring 2016
Whether you’re a weekend warrior or a world-class professional hockey player, Mark Sontag ’81, ’83 MD is the guy you need on your team. He runs two Redwood City, Calif., pain treatment centers by day and works as a medical consultant for the San Jose Sharks by night. He’s been with the team since it was formed in 1991 and has also served as a medical consultant for the Oakland Raiders, San Francisco 49ers and San Francisco Giants. As the Sharks play the St. Louis Blues in the Western Conference Finals, Sontag spoke with Northwestern magazine about pain, youth hockey and Ferraris.
Northwestern: What’s your role with the San Jose Sharks?
Mark Sontag: I’m a physical medicine and rehabilitation doctor, so I take care of the lower back injuries, neck and nerve injuries, stingers, etc. During the home games I’m usually in the locker room..
N: Do you treat other patients besides pro hockey players?
MS: I run two businesses. Remedy Medical Group is a multidisciplinary group of physicians that specialize in sports medicine, spine medicine and pain management. SPARCmed is directed at managing chronic pain, teaching people how to cope with pain and help restore function and get them back to work or normal roles in the family.
N: What are some differences between treating hockey players and taking care of your everyday patients?
MS: With elite athletes, particularly the hockey players and the football players, they tend to have high pathology, meaning broken bones, serious ligament injuries in their ankles, knees and elbows. They also tend to have a very low level of pain and high level of function.
You think about how someone gets to the NHL — not only do they have to be highly skilled, but they also have to have a high pain tolerance. Hockey players start playing hockey when they’re very young. Say you have an 8-year-old playing with an 11-year-old brother. This 8-year-old falls down on the ice and hits his knee. The older players aren’t going to pick him up, cuddle him and run him home to mom. They’ll pick him up by the scruff of his neck, and if the knee moves, they’ll say ‘Keep playing.’ If that kid then scores a goal, he doesn’t interpret pain in a negative way. The pain didn’t interfere with his function. What we see with chronic pain patients is the opposite. They have low pathology, high pain and low function. Most of us fall in the middle.
I think that the fascinating thing about being involved in sports medicine is that you’re really able to see the maximum that the human body can experience, what’s physically possible, what’s the most advanced function in a human being — and that’s essentially being an elite hockey player.
N: What kind of extra toll do postseason games take on hockey players’ bodies?
MS: It’s a grind. They’re really just toughing it out at this point. Virtually all the players are playing in pain, and it’s just a question of their pain tolerance. Some injuries are such that they physically cannot perform — if you have an unstable knee, you can’t play. Being in sports medicine is probably the closest thing you get to being in a battle situation with the military. You’re having people come in with injuries, and you have to treat them rapidly.
N: I’m assuming the deeper the team goes in the playoffs, the more pain they have to fight through.
MS: It really is remarkable what these players do. They’ve been conditioned to perform in pain. They’re really finely tuned machines … like Ferraris. They have high maintenance needs, but they’re performing at a high level compared to, say, a Chevy Volt, where it’s low speed, low performance. They’re the cream of the crop.
N: What’s something that people might not realize about the work that you do?
MS: The thing that’s somewhat unique about being a sports medicine physician is that you have many parties involved. As a physician, your number one obligation is to provide care to the athlete, but you have a highly paid athlete who has a family; you have an agent who wants the player to play but doesn’t want them to be permanently injured; you have the coach who has a more short-term outlook — ‘We’re in the playoffs. I need you to play’; and you have the general manager who’s thinking, ‘I want him to play, but at the same time I have a three-year contract, and I want him to be available the next two years.’ Then finally you have the physician trying to weigh the safety of allowing an injured athlete to perform in a violent environment. You have to do what’s best for the athlete. Amazingly, after doing this for 30 years, you really know which injuries are OK to play with and which injuries are not.
N: Do you enjoy your work?
MS: Yes, it’s actually very exciting. In a sense, you can have some influence on the outcome of a game, maybe a minor influence, but you are making a decision if a player can play. You’re part of the team.
N: Did you play hockey?
MS: I played hockey growing up in St. Louis on ice ponds and while at Northwestern med school, on the frozen field near my dorm.
Sharks' Team Doctor Calls the Shots / Menlo Park physician aims for zero pain
- Bill Workman | San Francisco Chronicle | October 6, 2000
Friends of Dr. Mark Sontag of Menlo Park like to joke that he's "a man for all seasons."
A specialist in sports medicine and rehabilitation, Sontag is a team doctor for the San Francisco Giants, the San Jose Sharks and the San Jose Sabercats, as well as a consulting spinal physician for the Oakland Raiders and Menlo College's athletics programs.
In the early 1990s, he also treated San Francisco 49ers players as a member of the medical group headed by the team's longtime chief physician, orthopedic surgeon Michael Dillingham of Menlo Park.
This weekend's schedule is an especially busy one for Sontag, with the Giants in the National League playoffs, the Sharks opening their National Hockey League season tonight and the Raiders playing the 49ers on Sunday in San Francisco.
He'll be behind the bench at the Sharks game and on the sidelines for the Raiders, and he has already been called on this week to examine the back injury of Giants relief pitcher John Johnstone, unfortunately confirming the team's fears it's unlikely he will be able to pitch again this season.
The 42-year-old Sontag, a longtime sports buff who grew up outside Chicago playing hockey, basketball and tennis, is said to be one of only a handful of physicians nationwide whose medical skills are serving the needs of more than two professional sports teams on a regular basis.
"What started as a hobby being a fan turned into a passion for sports medicine, and now it's my occupation," he remarked. "I follow all the teams in the newspaper anyway, and this way I enjoy being part of an organization where my skills can have an impact on the outcome of a game or a season."
For that matter, said Sontag, grinning, "I'd love to work with the (Golden State) Warriors and round it out" with basketball.
In July, Sontag and two colleagues, Drs. Perry Blackmon and Franklin Perry, opened the Sports, Pain and Rehabilitative Care Center in Menlo Park for the treatment of chronic and acute pain sufferers. However, their patients are not elite athletes, but people with chronic pain syndrome who have undergone previous medical or surgical treatment with little or no relief. Typically, they are referred by employers or insurance companies hoping to help them return to work and a more productive life.
Over the years, the 6-foot-3-inch Sontag, who stopped playing pickup basketball at the gym only a few years ago after injuring his knees, developed a theory about the levels of pain tolerance among athletes that now informs the center's treatment model. Psychological retraining of a patient to reduce pain and suffering is combined with physical therapy, exercise, medical pain management and vocational counseling.
Sontag, a certified physiatrist, or doctor who experienced in rehabilitation, said neurological studies show that motion tends to block pain impulses to the brain. In the case of some star athletes, this enables them to perform at almost superhuman levels until the injury finally forces them to the sidelines for treatment.
In pursuing that theory, Sontag has established a pecking order of pain tolerance that puts hockey players at the highest pain threshold and baseball players the lowest, with football players somewhere in the middle.
He recalled that when he first went to work with the Sharks, he thought he would be following the same pregame routines of giving pain-killing injections to hockey players as he had to injured 49ers linemen, who typically sought shots for shoulder problems so they could perform with less pain.
However, after waiting for more than an hour with his needles and syringes at the ready in the Sharks locker room, he was advised by the team's trainer that "hockey players don't take shots." The trainer was exaggerating, but it wasn't far from the truth. Hockey players, said Sontag, "are the best conditioned and toughest athletes I've ever dealt with."
Eventually, he came to believe there was a correlation between pain thresholds and how much continuous movement a particular sport demands of an injured athlete. The more action, he said, "the less pain is likely to be felt, and I've observed that applies not only to athletes, but others, too."
For example, he noted that when the progress of a football game is analyzed, it breaks down into relatively brief bursts of action wrapped around lengthy strolls back to the huddle, timeouts and other unscheduled delays. Football players insist on being with less pain in a game, Sontag said, because any twinge could significantly affect their performance during those spurts of action.
By comparison, hockey matches are 60 minutes of almost continuous action, while in baseball, some players, notably outfielders, may not do much of anything for several innings at a time, other than go to bat.
"For the most part, baseball players are standing or sitting for long stretches of time with nothing happening, but very aware of whatever injury they might have, no matter how minor," said Sontag.
Even so, what differentiates most athletes from the rest of us, he says, is that when they were hurt as children, "Dad or the coach picked them up, dusted them off and told them to 'get back out there,' " conditioning their nervous systems to perform when hurt.
On the other hand, he said, research shows that a high percentage of men and women who are chronic pain sufferers were sexually, emotionally or physically abused as children. "As a child they didn't learn the coping skills of life's challenges, finding it very difficult to manage pain as an adult," Sontag said.
The Menlo Park pain center, said Sontag, is using techniques "to cognitively and physically reformat their nervous systems so they can at least get back to feeling pain the way most people do."