VAIL, Colorado - Hip injuries are an epidemic among hockey players, surgeons at The Steadman Clinic say.
And one glance at the jerseys hanging inside the Vail clinic proves it.
Signed uniforms belonging to Mario Lemieux, Paul Kariya and other hockey stars are proof of 100-plus National Hockey League players who have sought help from hip surgeon Marc Philippon.
But what if there was a way to avoid those hip problems?
Doctors with The Steadman Philippon Research Institute in Vail are trying to figure out when the hip injuries occur - and what young hockey players can do to prevent them.
Dr. Robert LaPrade, a Steadman surgeon leading the study along with Philippon, said researchers believe a common hip injury happens when hockey players are still growing. The condition, called femoroacetabular impingement, can lead to arthritis later in life.
"We're worried we're creating a generation of kids that are going to have hip arthritis," LaPrade said. "Ten years ago, kids played baseball and soccer and basketball and hockey. They didn't play one sport all year round like they do now. It's looking like the reason we're getting this epidemic is because kids are focusing on one sport."
So far, the researchers have found the injury is alarmingly common among 17- and 18-year-old hockey players. Over Labor Day weekend, the researchers screened 20 members of a Colorado Springs "major midget" team, which is basically a pre-college travel team, and discovered a lot of them had hip problems. Doctors aren't disclosing exactly how many of the players exhibited hip problems until the findings appear in a medical journal.
"We found there's an epidemic of hip problems with that age group so it's very concering because we were not expecting to see that number of people with problems at that age," LaPrade said.
To find out when the hip problems emerge, the doctors are studying a group of 20 peewee players from the Vail Eagle Hockey Association. The kids are 10 to 12 years old and unlikely to have hip problems yet.
"It's a good age to screen because they're just hitting their growth spurts and it's the first year they're allowed checking in hockey," LaPrade said.
Researchers will be studying their hips over the next four years to see if and when any hip problems develop.
The local hockey players had M.R.I.s taken on Thursday. On Friday, the kids came into the clinic for a physical exam including tests of their hip strength. Researchers plan to repeat the tests in two and four years. They also plan to look into what part of the skating stride could be causing the problem.
"We want to look at the risk patterns so we can modify them and understand when the problems start," Philippon said.
He hopes the research can lead to guidelines on training, how many games kids should play without upping the injury risk and how to detect hip problems earlier.
Eagle resident Andy Clark was among the parents who brought their kids in for exams Friday. His 11-year-old son, Max, has been playing hockey since he was 4.
"My concern is that my two sons enjoy the game and not have it impact them too negatively as they get older," Clark said.
He has hip problems of his own from many years of hockey, and so, he says, do most of his hockey friends.
"We just all assumed it was part of the deal," he said.
As a longtime hockey coach in the valley, he hopes the study's results discourage parents from pushing their kids to play hockey year-round.
"I hope it sends a message to the parent who says 'You have to play all year because we have to get a Division I scholarship,'" he said. "It's absurd. Let them be kids."
Hip problems are all to familiar to LaPrade as well. One of his sons, a goalie, developed problems in both hips at 16. LaPrade also saw his share of hip injuries as the team physician for the University of Minnesota Men's ice hockey team.
The common hip injury the doctors are studying happens when the shape of the thigh bone gets too big to fit in the socket.
"It's like trying to fit a round peg in a square hole," LaPrade said.
Over time, the friction tears the socket.
Philippon has successfully treated many hockey players with surgery but he hopes the study will outline ways to prevent the injury.
The Steadman Philippon Research Institute is sponsoring the $100,000 study. Researchers hope to submit the initial findings to a national sports medicine journal by Nov. 1.
"This will be a landmark study," research institute president J. Michael Egan said.
Staff Writer Sarah Mausolf can be reached at 970-748-2928 or email@example.com.