Lower Extremity Injuries in Ice Hockey: Current Concepts
James N. Irvine, Jr. MD, Clinical Fellow, Columbia University, Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine. T. Sean Lynch, MD, Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Columbia University, Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine. Bryan T. Hanypsiak, MD, Attending Physician, Physician’s Regional Medical Center, Naples, Florida. Charles A. Popkin, MD, Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Columbia University, Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine.
Authors’ Disclosure Statement: The authors report no actual or potential conflict of interest in relation to this article.
Address correspondence to: Charles A. Popkin, MD, Columbia University, Center for Shoulder, Elbow and Sports Medicine, 622 W 168th Street, 11th Floor, New York, New York 10032 (tel: 212-305-4787; email: firstname.lastname@example.org).
Am J Orthop. 2018;47(11). Copyright Frontline Medical Communications Inc. 2018. All rights reserved.
Ice hockey is a fast-paced, collision sport requiring tremendous skill and finesse, yet ice hockey can be a harsh and violent game. It has one of the highest musculoskeletal injury rates in all of competitive sports. Razor sharp skates, aluminum sticks and boards made from high density polyethylene (HDPE), all contribute to the intrinsic hazards of the game. The objective of this article is to review evaluation, management, and return-to-the-rink guidelines after common lower extremity ice hockey injuries.
Ice hockey is a high-speed, collision sport with one of the highest injury rates in all of sports.
Femoroacetabular impingement is a cause of hip pain at all levels of ice hockey; studies indicate goaltenders are at high risk—particularly those who utilize the butterfly, as opposed to hybrid or stand-up, goaltending style.
Medial collateral ligament (MCL) tears are common in ice hockey and are usually the result of a collision with another player.
Use of Kevlar socks and placement of skate tongues deep to the shin pads can help reduce the chance of a boot-top laceration.
High-ankle sprains are more prevalent in ice hockey because of the rigidity of hockey skates and can be a cause of significant loss of time away from the rink.
“Hockey is a fast body-contact game played by men with clubs in their hands and knives laced to their feet, since the skates are razor sharp, and before the evening is over it is almost a certainty that someone will be hurt and will fleck the ice with a generous contribution of gore before he is led away to be hemstitched together again.” —Paul Gallico in Farewell to Sport (1938)
Ice hockey is a collision sport with player speeds in excess of 30 miles/hour, on a sheet of ice surrounded by unforgiving boards, with a vulcanized rubber puck moving at speeds approaching 100 miles/hour.1-3 Understanding injuries specific to this fast-paced sport is an essential part of being a team physician at any level of competitive ice hockey. We are continuing to improve our ability to correctly identify and treat injuries in ice hockey players.2,4 On the prevention side, rule changes in hockey have been implemented, such as raising the age to allow checking and penalties for deliberate hits to the head and checking from behind, to make the game safer to play.3 Additionally, advancements in biomechanical research and 3D modeling are providing new insights into the pathoanatomy of the hip joint, which can be utilized for surgical planning in hockey players and goalies suffering from symptomatic femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) of the hip.5
During the 2010 Winter Olympics, more than 30% of ice hockey players were injured, which was the highest percentage amongst all competing sports.6 They also tallied the highest percentage of player-to-player injuries during the Olympics of any sport. Consequently, the team physician covering ice hockey should be prepared to manage upper and lower extremity musculoskeletal injuries, but also concussions, cervical spine injuries, and ocular and dental trauma.2 One of the earliest epidemiological studies of ice hockey injuries looked at elite Danish hockey players over 2 seasons and found that head trauma accounted for 28% of all injuries, followed by lower extremity injuries at 27% with upper extremity injuries accounting for 19%.7 More recent epidemiological studies have shown similar rates based on body region while further defining individual diagnoses and their incidence. This should help clinicians and researchers develop prevention strategies, as well as improve treatments to optimize player outcomes and return to sport.8,9 Our group recently reviewed the evaluation and management of common head, neck, and shoulder injuries at all competitive levels of ice hockey, and this article serves to complement the former by focusing on lower extremity injuries (Table 1).2
Evaluation and Management of Common Lower Extremity Hockey Injuries
Hip and groin injuries are very common amongst this group of athletes and account for approximately 9% of all ice hockey injuries.1 Unfortunately, they are also known for their high recurrence rates, which may be in part due to delayed diagnosis, inadequate rest and rehabilitation, as well as the extreme loads that are placed on the hip during competition.10,11 In hockey, the most commonly reported hip injuries include goaltender’s hip, FAI, sports hernia/hockey groin syndrome, adductor strains, hip pointer, and quadriceps contusions. Dalton and colleagues12 performed the largest epidemiological study to date on hip and groin injuries amongst National Collegiate Athletic Association ice hockey players and reported that the most common injury mechanism was noncontact in nature. Contact injuries accounted for 13% (55 of 421) in men’s ice hockey players while less than 4% (4 of 114) injuries in female ice hockey players, which is likely attributed to a no checking rule in the women’s division. Some of these hip and groin injuries are difficult to diagnose so it is important for the team physician to perform a thorough history and physical examination. Advanced imaging (magnetic resonance imaging [MRI] or a computed tomography (CT) scan with 3D reconstructions) may be necessary to make the correct diagnosis. This is important for providing proper treatment as well as setting player expectations for return to sport.12
Throughout the hockey community, FAI is being examined as a possible source of symptomatic hip pain amongst players at all levels. A recent study, which utilized the National Hockey League (NHL) injury surveillance database, reported that FAI accounted for 5.3% of all hip and groin injuries.13 The etiology of FAI is thought to arise from a combination of genetic predisposition coupled with repetitive axial loading/hip flexion. This causes a bony overgrowth of the proximal femoral physes resulting in a cam deformity (Figure 1).5,14 The abnormal bony anatomy allows for impingement between the acetabulum and proximal femur, which can injure the labrum and articular cartilage of the hip joint.
In the recent study by Ross and colleagues,15 the authors focused on symptomatic hip impingement in ice hockey goalies.15 Goaltender’s hip may be the result of the “butterfly style,” which is a technique of goaltending that emphasizes guarding the lower part of the goal. The goalie drops to his/her knees and internally rotates the hips to allow the leg pads to be parallel to the ice. This style acquired the name butterfly because of the resemblance of the spread goalie pads to a butterfly’s wings. Bedi and associates16 have evaluated hip biomechanics using 3D-generated bone models and showed in their study that arthroscopic treatment can improve hip kinematics and range of motion.
Plain radiographs showed that 90% (61 of 68) of hockey goalies had an elevated alpha angle signifying a femoral cam-type deformity.15 Goalies had a significantly lower mean lateral center-edge angle (27.3° vs 29.6°; P = .03) and 13.2% of them were found to have acetabular dysplasia (lateral center-edge angle<20°) compared to only 3% of positional players. The CT scan measurements demonstrated that hockey goalies have a unique cam-type deformity that is located more lateral (1:00 o’clock vs 1:45 o’clock; P < .0001) along the proximal femur, an elevated maximum alpha angle (80.9° vs 68.6°; P < .0001) and loss of offset, when compared to positional players. These findings provide an anatomical basis in support of reports that goaltenders are more likely to experience intra-articular hip injuries compared to other positional players.13
Regardless of position, symptomatic FAI in a hockey player is generally a problem that slowly builds and is made worse with activity.17 On examination, the player may have limited hip flexion and internal rotation, as well as weakness compared to the contralateral side when testing hip flexion and abduction.18,19 Plain radiographs plus MRI or CT allow for proper characterization and diagnosis (to include underlying chondrolabral pathology).20,21
In the young athlete, initial management includes physical therapy, which focuses on core strengthening. Emphasis is placed on hip flexion and extension, as well as abduction and external rotation with the goal of reducing symptoms and avoiding injuries.22 A similar approach may be applied to the elite athlete, but failure of nonoperative management may necessitate surgical intervention. Hip arthroscopy continues to grow in popularity over open surgical dislocation with low complication rate and high return-to-play rate.23-25
For the in-season athlete, attempts to continue to play can be assisted with the role of an intra-articular corticosteroid injection, which can help calm inflammation within the hip joint and mitigate pain, while rehabilitation focuses on core stabilization, postural retraining and focusing on any muscle imbalances that might be present. For positional players, ice time and shift duration can be adjusted to give the player’s hip a period of rest; meanwhile, for goaltenders, shot volumes in practice can be decreased.
For athletes who fail nonoperative care, surgical treatment varies depending on underlying hip pathology and may include femoroplasty, acetabuloplasty, and microfracture as well as labral repair or debridement. Though data are limited, Philippon and colleagues26 have published promising results in a case series of 28 NHL players after surgical intervention for FAI. All players returned to sport at an average of 3.8 months and players who had surgery within 1 year of injury returned on average 1.1 months sooner than those who waited more than 1 year. Rehabilitation protocol varies between goaltenders compared to defensemen and offensive players due to the different demands required for blocking shots on goal.27
One of the most challenging injuries to correctly identify in the hip area is athletic pubalgia (also referred to as sports hernia or core muscle injury) because pain in the groin may be referred from the lumbar spine, hip joint, urologic, or perineal etiologies.28 Sports hernias involve dilatation of the external ring of the inguinal canal and thinning of the posterior wall. Players may report to the athletic trainer or team physician with a complaint of groin pain that is worse when pushing off with their skate or taking a slap shot.29 On exam, pain can be reproduced by hip extension, contralateral torso rotation, or with a resisted sit-up with palpation of the inferolateral edge of the distal rectus abdominus.30 An MRI with specific sequences centered over the pubic symphysis is usually warranted to aid in the workup of sports hernia. An MRI in these cases may also demonstrate avulsions of the rectus abdominus.31
Most of these injuries are managed conservatively but can warrant surgical intervention if the symptoms persist. In the study by Jakoi and colleagues,32 they identified 43 ice hockey players over an 8-year period (2001-2008) who had repairs of their sports hernias and assessed the statistics during the 2 years prior and 2 years after surgery. The authors found that 80% of these players were able to return to the ice for 2 or more full seasons. The return-to-sport rate was comparable to other sports after sports hernia repair, but players who had played in ≥7 seasons demonstrated a greater decrease in number of games played, goals, assists and time on ice compared to those who had played in ≤6 seasons prior to the time of injury. Between 1989 and 2000, 22 NHL players who failed to respond to nonoperative management of their groin injuries underwent surgical exploration.29 At the time of surgical exploration, their hockey groin syndrome, consisted of small tears in the external oblique aponeurosis through which branches of the ilioinguinal or iliohypogastric could be identified. These surgical procedures were all through a standard inguinal approach and the perforating neurovascular structures were excised, while the main trunk of the ilioinguinal nerve was ablated and the external oblique aponeurosis was repaired and reinforced with Goretex (W.L. Gore & Associates Inc, Flagstaff, AZ). At follow-up, 18 of the 22 players (82%) had no pain and 19 (86%) were able to resume their careers in the NHL.29 Ice hockey players with sports hernias or hockey groin syndrome often return to the sport, but it is important to identify these problems early so that surgical options can be discussed if the player fails conservative management. It is also critical to make sure that all pathology is identified, because in players with mixed sports hernia and FAI, return-to-play results improve when both issues are addressed. In a study of athletes (some of whom were ice hockey players), who had both FAI and sports hernia, and only hernia/pubalgia surgery was performed, 25% of these athletes returned to sport. If only FAI was addressed, 50% of the athletes returned to sport; however, when hernia and FAI were treated, 89% returned to play.33
Adductor strains includes injury to the adductor muscles, pectineus, obturator externus and gracilis, and are prevalent in ice hockey players. A study of elite Swedish ice hockey players published in 1988 reported that adductor strains accounted for 10% (10 of 95) of all injuries.34 Given the prevalence of these injuries, considerable research has been dedicated to understanding their mechanism and prevention.35 Adductor strains within the ice hockey population have been attributed to the eccentric forces on the adductors when players attempt to decelerate the leg during a stride.36 A study of NHL players revealed that a ratio <80% of adductor-to-abductor muscle is the best predictor of a groin strain.37
These injuries are also well known for their recurrence rates, as was the case in an NHL study where 4 of the 9 adductor strains (44%) were recurrent injuries.37 The authors attributed the recurrence to an incomplete rehabilitation program and an accelerated return to sport. This was followed by an NHL prevention program that spanned 2 seasons and analyzed 58 players whose adductor-to-abductor ratio was <80% and placed them into a 6-week intervention program during the preseason.37 Only 3 players sustained an adductor strain in the 2 subsequent seasons after the intervention, compared to 11 strains in the previous 2 seasons. Thus, early identification of muscle strength imbalance coupled with an appropriate intervention program has proven to be an effective means of reducing adductor strains in this at-risk population.
Contact injuries may vary with checking into the boards being unique to men’s ice hockey. Hip pointers occur as a result of a direct compression injury to the iliac crest, which causes trauma to the bone but also to the overlying hip abductor musculature, and represent roughly 2.4% of ice hockey injuries.23 The resulting contusion may cause a local hematoma formation. Early identification of the injury plus treatment with RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) coupled with crutches to limit weight-bearing status may minimize soft tissue trauma and swelling, and ultimately aid in pain control and return to sport.38 Hip abductor strengthening, added padding over the injured area, as well as a compressive hip spica wrapping, have all been suggested to expedite return to play and help prevent recurrence of the hip pointer.8
Injury to the medial collateral ligament (MCL) is the most commonly reported knee injury (Figure 2) and second only to concussion amongst all injuries in National Collegiate Athletic Association ice hockey players.8,39 The mechanism of injury typically involves a valgus force on the knee, which is often caused by collision into another player.39 Valgus stress testing with the knee in 30° of flexion is used to grade the severity of injury (Grade I: 0-5 mm of medial opening; Grade II: 5-10 mm of medial opening; Grade III: >10 mm of medial opening).39 One study that followed a single college hockey team for 8 seasons reported that 77% of injuries (10 of 13) occurred during player-to-player collision,39 with 5 being Grade 1 injuries, 6 Grade 2 injuries, 1 Grade 3; information was missing for 1 player. Nonoperative management of incomplete injuries, grade 1 and 2 sprains, with RICE and early physical therapy intervention to work on knee range of motion and quadriceps strengthening typically helps the player return to sport within days for grade 1 and 2 injuries to 3 weeks for grade 2 injuries. Complete tears have been managed both operatively and nonoperatively with evidence to suggest better outcomes after surgical intervention if there is a concomitant ACL injury requiring reconstruction.8,9
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears occur less frequently in hockey players compared to the players in other sports such as football and basketball.38,40 Between 2006 and 2010, 47 players were identified by the NHL Injury Surveillance System as having sustained an ACL injury, which equates to an incidence of 9.4 ACL injuries per NHL season over this time span.41 The mechanism of ACL tears in ice hockey players appears to be different from other sports players based on a recent MRI study that evaluated players for concomitant injuries following ACL tear and noted significantly fewer bone bruises on the lateral femoral condyle compared to players in other sports.42 Early evaluation after injury with Lachman and/or pivot shift tests aids the diagnosis. Data from the NHL study identified 32 players (68%) with concomitant meniscal injuries and 32 (68%) had MCL injuries in conjunction with their ACL tears.41 Average length in the league prior to injury was 5.65 seasons. Twenty-nine of the injured players (61.7%) underwent reconstruction with a patellar tendon autograft, 13 (27.7%) had a hamstring autograft, and 5 (10.6%) had either a patellar tendon or hamstring allograft.41 Meniscus and ACL injuries were associated with a decreased length of career compared to age-matched controls and, notably, players >30 years at the time of injury had only a 67% rate of return to sport whereas those <30 years had a return-to-sport rate of 80%. Players who were able to return did so at an average of 9.8 months (range, 6-21 months) and had a significant reduction in total number of goals, assists, and points scored compared to controls. Decline in performance was typically associated with forwards and wings, while defensemen did not demonstrate the same decrease in performance following return to ice hockey.41
Meniscal tears are a well-documented concomitant injury with ruptures of the ACL, and the combination is a known pattern associated with shorter careers compared to isolated ACL tears in ice hockey players.41 The lateral meniscus is known for increased mobility compared to the medial meniscus and is more commonly injured (39% vs 8.5%) in ACL tears that occur in contact sports and downhill skiing.42 Ice hockey presents a scenario that is different from other contact sports because of the near frictionless interaction between the player’s ice skates and playing surface. This likely equates to a different injury mechanism and dissipation of energy after contact as well as non-contact injuries.38 A recent study reviewed knee MRI findings associated with ACL tears in collegiate ice hockey players and compared to other sports known for their high rates of concomitant meniscal pathology. The authors reported a statistically significant decrease in lateral meniscus tears and bone-bruising patterns in ice hockey players with ACL injuries compared to athletes with ACL tears in other sports.43 In contrast, an NHL study of ACL tears in professional ice hockey players found that 68% of players had concomitant meniscal tears (32 out of 47 players).41
The presence of a meniscal tear on MRI is typically a surgical problem, especially if it occurred with an ACL injury. Meniscal repair is preferable, if possible, because there is a known association of increased cartilage contact pressures associated with meniscal debridement. Return to sport following meniscus injury hinges upon whether it is an isolated injury and how it is treated. If the meniscus injury occurs in isolation and can be treated with a debridement and partial resection alone, there is obviously a quicker return to sport as the player can be weight-bearing immediately following surgery. Return to skating after meniscal debridement and partial resection is usually 4 to 6 weeks, whereas meniscal repair protocols vary depending on surgeon; players may need 3 months to 4 months to return to the ice.
Quadriceps contusions are contact injuries that are not unique to ice hockey (Figure 3). They may result from player collision but also from direct blows from a hockey puck. A high velocity puck is known to cause immense trauma to the quadriceps muscles, which may result in localized bleeding and hematoma formation. If the player is able to anticipate the event, active contraction of the quadriceps muscle has been shown to absorb some of the energy and result in a less traumatic injury, but in a fast paced ice hockey game, the player’s anticipation is less likely than in other sports such as baseball.44 Interestingly, the degree of knee flexion after injury is predictive of injury severity with milder injuries associated with angles >90° and more severe injuries resulting in knee flexion angles <45° and typically an antalgic gait.45 It is important to treat these injuries during the first 24 hours with the knee maintained in 120°of flexion, plus ice and compression, which can be achieved using a locked knee brace or elastic compression wrap. Quadriceps stretching and isometric strengthening should immediately follow the period of immobilization. The addition of NSAIDs may help prevent the formation of myositis ossificans. A study from West Point suggests that the average return to sport or activity ranges from 13 days (mild contusion) to 21 days (severe contusions), while others8 have indicated that if the injury is treated acutely and a player is able to regain motion and strength, return to ice hockey within a few days is possible.
Foot and Ankle
Ice hockey has some unique injuries that can be attributed to the use of ice skates for play. One such injury is boot-top lacerations, which are fortunately rare as they can be a career-ending injury.47 The spectrum of injury ranges from superficial abrasions to more severe soft tissue disruption, including the extensor tendons and neurovascular structures. The actual mechanism of injury involves an opponent’s skate blade cutting across the anterior ankle. One early case report described a protective method of having players place their skate tongues deep to their protective shin pads, instead of turning the tongues down.47 Kevlar socks have also been shown to help prevent or minimize the damage from a skate blade.48
Injury to the lateral ankle ligaments, anterior talofibular ligament or calcaneofibular ligament, are usually more common than the higher ankle sprains involving the syndesmosis. However, this is not the case in ice hockey. The rigidity of the ice skate at the level of the lateral ligaments seems to impart a protective mechanism to the lower ligaments, but this results in a higher incidence of syndesmotic injuries. These high ankle injuries are unfortunately more debilitating and often require a longer recovery period. In a study of these injuries in NHL players, syndesmotic sprains made up 74% of all ankle sprains, whereas only 18.4% of ankle sprains involved the syndesmosis in American football players..49,50 The average number of days between injury and return to play is 45 days, and some authors believe that defensemen may have a harder time recovering because of the demands on their ankles by having to switch continuously between forward and backward skating.49
Most patients are treated conservatively when their ankle plain radiographs show a congruent mortise and no evidence of syndesmotic widening. If the player expresses pain when squeezing the syndesmosis, it is helpful to obtain stress radiographs to further evaluate for syndesmotic injury. Nonoperative management includes RICE, immobilization in a rigid boot with crutches to protect weight-bearing with gradual advancements and eventually physical therapy to address any ankle stiffness, followed by dynamic functional activities. Treatment options for syndesmotic widening and failed conservative management includes both screw and plate options as well as suture buttons.49,51,52
Ankle and foot fractures were historically a rare injury in ice hockey players based on radiograph evaluation; however, the recent study by Baker and colleagues4 demonstrated that MRI can be helpful in detecting subradiographic fractures. Most of the injuries detected after MRI were from being hit by a hockey puck; this was a novel mechanism that had not been previously reported in the literature.4 Of the injuries that resulted from a direct blow, 14 of 17 occurred on the medial aspect of the foot and ankle, which is believed to result another word? from a defender skating towards an offensive player and attempting to block shots on goal. In this study, all occult fractures involving the medial malleolus were eventually treated with open reduction and internal fixation and underwent routine healing.4 The navicular bone and base of the first metatarsal accounted for the remaining medial-sided fractures. In a recent analysis of risk factors for reoperation following operative fixation of foot fractures across the National Basketball Association, the National Football Leagues, Major League Baseball, and the National Hockey League only a total of 3 fractures involving the foot (1 navicular and 2 first metatarsal) were identified in NHL players over a 30-year period.53 The study acknowledged a major limitation being a public source for identifying players with fractures.
Lace bite is another common ice hockey injury. It typically occurs at the beginning of a season or whenever a player is breaking in a new pair of skates. The cause of the lace bite is the rigid tongue in the skate that rubs against the anterior ankle. Skating causes inflammation in the area of the tibialis anterior tendon, and the player will complain of significant anterior ankle pain. First line treatment for lace bite is ice (Figure 4A), NSAID gel (eg, diclofenac 1%), and a Bunga lace-bite pad (Absolute Athletics). (Figure 4B)
Lower extremity injuries are common in ice hockey players, and a covering physician should be comfortable managing these injuries from breezers to skate. Proper evaluation and work-up is critical for early diagnosis and identification of pathology, which can minimize the impact of the injury and expedite a treatment plan to return the player safely to the ice and in the game.