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New Foot and Ankle Surgeon is Athlete at Heart


By Michelle Brubaker   |   August 08, 2013

She tumbled her way to becoming a 1996 Olympic hopeful and pole vaulted her way through medical school. Now, Sonya Ahmed, MD, joins UC San Diego Health as the new chief of the Foot and Ankle Division in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, bringing advanced treatment options and team collaborations that will improve patient care.

As part of UC San Diego Sports Medicine, Ahmed will work with a team of surgeons, physicians and athletic trainers to treat a multitude of injuries, including ankle sprains, ankle instability, Achilles tendonitis and tendinosis, tears, partial tears, dislocations, foot fractures and stress fractures.

Sonya Ahmed “Our UC San Diego Sports Medicine team provides a multi-disciplinary, specialized approach from diagnosis to treatment, providing the best opportunity for positive outcomes to patients with joint conditions,” said Ahmed. “As more people become active, there is an increased need for this type of approach in the sports medicine field.”

Ahmed decided to pursue a career in orthopedic surgery because of her extensive experience with athletics and her appreciation for the impact of injury and recovery. She also realized early on the need for more female surgeons in the specialty, especially within foot and ankle.

“Females in this field are rare but growing,” said Ahmed. “Having been involved with sports my whole life, I always wanted a female physician, but it was a challenge to find one. I knew as a young athlete I wanted a career in sports medicine, and my focus in foot and ankle continually grew. Ankle sprains are the most common injury for novice to seasoned athletes.”

Ahmed also treats patients with ankle arthritis. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, arthritis is the leading cause of disability in the United States and can occur at any age. 

“Ankle arthritis can be debilitating, painful and seriously impact a patient’s quality of life,” said Ahmed. “Patients can have continuous pain that is most often related to weight being placed on the limb.  Crepitus, or popping, swelling and stiffness are also very common symptoms.”

Although there is no cure for arthritis, there are many treatment options available. Ahmed is fellowship-trained to perform total ankle replacement surgery on patients. The procedure replaces the damaged bone in the ankle joint. An incision is made on the anterior (top) of the ankle, the arteries and other vital structures are moved out of the way and the lower end of the shin bone (tibia) and the top of the foot bone (talus) are replaced with artificial joint parts made with metal and plastic. 

“As a foot and ankle surgeon, I approach the procedure in the way that best suits the patient and their pathology. Every case is different, and in something as delicate and important as an ankle replacement, it is important to try and tailor the implant to each patient,” said Ahmed.

Ahmed said a patient is a candidate for surgery when all non-surgical measures like anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and steroid injections have failed.  An ideal candidate for an ankle replacement is also not overweight, does not smoke, is not diabetic, may have other foot fusions, wants to maintain ankle motion, has end stage arthritis without significant deformity or has had a possible traumatic injury from an incident such as a car accident or sports injury, causing the end stage arthritis. 

Recovery time from an ankle replacement depends largely on the patient but often requires at least an overnight stay in the hospital and a period of no weight on the limb for about four weeks post-surgery.  By eight to twelve weeks of recovery, the patient is usually functioning without assistance.

“The goal of an ankle replacement is to restore the patient’s ability to walk,” said Ahmed. “Patients can remain active, but I like to encourage non-impact activities, such as swimming, to perhaps extend the life of the implant.”

Her passion for sports is revealed in her bedside manner, which she describes as humanistic and compassionate. Whether treating a sprained ankle or preparing a patient for surgery, Ahmed said she can truly relate to her patients and the journey they are going through.

As an American of Egyptian heritage, Ahmed joined the Egyptian National Gymnastics Team at 16 years of age in hopes of making the 1996 Olympics. She was subsequently offered a full college scholarship as the first female pole vaulter at University of Missouri, Kansas City (UMKC). She proceeded to win several championships while maintaining her status as an Academic All-American and completing medical school.

“I try to do strength training and cardio daily. It’s a great way to decompress,” said Ahmed. “I understand the frustration and disappointment when I have to tell my patients they need to take a break from the activities they love.”

Prior to coming to UC San Diego Health, Ahmed graduated from UMKC Medical School in Kansas City, Missouri, completed her orthopedic surgery residency at the University of Texas Medical Branch (UTMB) in Galveston, Texas and finished her fellowship training at the prestigious Andrews Sports Medicine Institute (ASMI) in Birmingham, Alabama.

Ahmed is honored to bring new perspectives and experiences in joint care to the UC San Diego Sports Medicine team.

“I try to think of my surgeries as my artwork. I think of patient success stories as my autograph, and I take pride in that,” said Ahmed. “I always tell athletes who are injured that they didn’t get where they are without going through hardships or setbacks. Patients can overcome their injuries and become even stronger competitors.”

Related Specialties

Foot and Ankle Care

Orthopedic Surgery