Lower Extremity Injuries in Ice Hockey: Current Concepts

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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

Figure 2. MRI of right knee of 16-year-old defenseman who sustained valgus blow to knee. The medial collateral ligament is torn distally and flipped above pes tendons, a Stener-like lesion.

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

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