When Meb Keflezighi won the Boston Marathon on Monday he completed an unlikely comeback from a broken hip, an injury that is more commonly suffered by people much older.
The 38-year-old’s improbable victory makes him an inspiration not only to older athletes – he is the oldest man to win the race in 84 years – he also serves as a poster child for those who have suffered hip injuries and want to remain active.
The hip joint is one of the most important joints in the human body. It bears our body’s weight and the force of the strong muscles of the hip and leg. The hip is also one of the most flexible joints and allows a greater range of motion than all other joints in the body except for the shoulder.
This makes it vulnerable to injury, and a hip fracture can be devastating to mobility and overall health.
Broken hips can occur at any age, says Joseph Ciotola, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at the Orthopedic Specialty Hospital at Mercy Medical Center in Baltimore.
The most common hip fractures in older Americans are due to falls. In younger people, like Keflezighi, such injuries often begin as stress fractures. “Stress fractures are common in long distance runners,” Dr. Ciotola tells Newsmax Health.
Such fractures can result when initial injuries are ignored, says Dr. Marc Hungerford, an orthopedic surgeon who also works at the Mercy Center.
“What happens is that the injury is not enough to break the hip, but there is a fine crack, which can crack all the way through with repeated injuries,” he said. “It’s like a paper clip. If you bend it back and forth, eventually the material fatigues and it cracks in half.”
This is apparently what happened to Keflezighi, whose hip problems date to 2007 when he felt a sharp pain during a race but kept running. His problems escalated during the 2008 U.S. Olympic Marathon trials in Central Park
, where he finished eighth and failed to qualify for the team.
He was in excruciating pain, having trouble walking, much less running a marathon. In fact, he said that his hip hurt so badly that there were nights that he couldn’t even turn over in bed. Eventually, it was discovered he’d suffered a fracture.
Keflezighi, his career in doubt, underwent intense physical therapy at the Olympic Training Center in Colorado. He was put through a whirlwind of treatment including strength training, massage therapy, stretching, and more. Even so, many running experts gave him little chance of returning from such a serious injury.
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"Put a fork in him. He's done," wrote a callous blogger on a running website.
It wasn’t until 18 months later that Keflezighi was able resume running, winning the New York Marathon in 2009. After his New York victory, he sobbed with joy when meeting his wife after the race.
“Here’s a guy that couldn’t walk, that couldn’t turn in bed because of my hip fracture,” said Keflezighi. “So when we saw each other, we just broke down in tears.”
According to Dr. Ciotola, most stress injuries like the one Keflezighi suffered do not require surgery as because they occur on the side, in the upper portion of the hip, which can heal on its own.
“Most of the time, people who suffer stress fractures get better without surgery if they rest and use crutches, which take the weight off the hip. This can take up to three months, but usually by then the hip is healed enough so they can get back to physical activity,” he said.
On the other hand, hip fractures in the elderly usually are the result of a fall in which the bone breaks all the way and does require surgery, which can be either insertion of a rod or hip replacment, Dr. Ciotola said.
Runners can prevent hip injury by crosstraining, he said. “Don’t just run everyday, but crosstrain by alternating the days you run with days that you do cardiovascular exercise, such as elliptical training, rowing or biking, and weight training.”
Here are tips from Ciotola and Hungerford on how to prevent hip fractures, no matter your age or fitness level:
- Control your body weight as much as possible to avoid extra weight on the hip joint.
- Be active. Get regular exercise that provides stress to the joints to strengthen them, but don’t overwork them. This can be as simple as walking, biking, swimming, or jogging.
- Get involved in a program of weight training that will build up your bone density. This is extremely important for older people because bone density diminishes with age.
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