Straining to grasp language of injuries

As Major League Soccer glamour boy David Beckham languished on the bench with an injured ankle earlier this season, a Los Angeles Galaxy fan could bear it no more.

"That's what is wrong with sports," the fan began in a diatribe on an Internet forum. "Athletes now are nowhere near as tough as two generations ago. Turf toe? They make up injuries now."


To fans, turf toe may sound as innocuous as a splinter. But a big toe injury sidelined Ravens tackle Jonathan Ogden for the last two regular-season games of 2006 and threatens his 2007 season, perhaps his career.

Orioles fans are in a similar situation with pitcher Erik Bedard, whose stellar season was cut short by a strained oblique muscle. Fellow starter Jeremy Guthrie has a similar injury. The Portland Trail Blazers learned Thursday that Greg Oden, the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, will likely miss the 2007-08 season because he had microfracture surgery on his right knee.


From turf toes to oblique strains to high ankle sprains to microfracture surgery, medical terms are becoming more prevalent - and important - in sports today. Fans thirst for detailed injury reports so they can make out their fantasy sports lineups.

But some observers say the new vernacular has created a disconnect between players and fans who believe highly paid athletes are using jargon - and their guaranteed contracts - as reasons not to suit up. And some fans wonder how injuries they've never heard of can prove so damaging to highly trained athletes.

"You look at Jonathan Ogden at 350 pounds and you think, 'You mean his toe is keeping him out?'" said former Oriole Jim Traber, a talk show host on Oklahoma's WWLS radio. "I just don't think fans can fathom that. They think, 'Well, the plumber or the lawyer would go to work.'"

Traber, 45, who endured episodes of gout during his career in the 1980s, said fans are more understanding of injuries they are familiar with.

"The fans hear he tore his ACL, and nobody says a word about it. But you mention the oblique muscle and it's different. Part of the problem is people never knew there was an oblique until about 10 years ago," Traber said.

The oblique injury that led to Bedard's placement on the 60-day disabled list "is the same as the old abdominal strain" but with an updated name, said Warren King, chief of orthopedic surgery for the Oakland Raiders.

The obliques run "from the backbone all the way around to the front of the belly," and strains can be particularly harmful to baseball players "because if you bat or pitch, you do a lot of twisting maneuvers," said King, who has also worked with the San Francisco Giants. He said Bedard's sounded like a particularly severe strain.

A high ankle sprain, King said, "means you tore more ligaments" than in other such sprains, and it generally takes longer to recover.


A turf toe, he said, is a bruise where the big toe meets the foot. The injury long affected former Ravens cornerback Deion Sanders, now an analyst for the NFL Network. "When you injure it, it's very hard to walk and push off and run. If you do try to do it prematurely, you can aggravate it," King said.

One game into the season, the Ravens are enduring other ailments such as quarterback Steve McNair's injured groin and linebacker Ray Lewis' strained triceps in his right arm. Return man B.J. Sams was placed on injured reserve after tearing ligaments in his knee in Baltimore's season-opening loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.

Fans generally have not been critical of Ogden on Internet forums lately, probably owing to his reputation and many years as a Ravens leader. He is in his 12th season.

Increasingly, King says sports fans are being bombarded with medical jargon because the media is more probing about injuries than ever before.

"Think back 20 years before the Internet, and you'd hear that [former Giants slugger] Willie McCovey was injured. Now you say they've injured their third metatarsal," King said. "There's so much more information given, and that exposes the public to terms they've never heard before."

In the case of Oden, the center for the Trail Blazers, exploratory surgery on his knee showed damage that had to be repaired with microfracture surgery. In the NBA, with the constant pounding up and down the floor, having microfracture surgery raises long-term concerns. Some players - the Phoenix Suns' Amare Stoudemire and the New Jersey Nets' Jason Kidd - have returned from it to play at a high level, while others such as Jamal Mashburn and Anfernee Hardaway never returned to form.


Asked whether players are as tough as a generation or two ago, King, 50, says, "I think it's still individualized. There are guys like [Green Bay Packers quarterback] Brett Favre and [Orioles icon] Cal Ripken [Jr.] that still want to play." Ripken holds the Major League Baseball record for consecutive games played at 2,632.

But King said many athletes have guaranteed contracts that provide little incentive to play hurt. Others, he said, see images of battered former football players and worry about the long-term consequences of ignoring injuries.

Improved field conditions in recent decades have helped players avoid injury since synthetic turf was first laid down in Houston's Astrodome more than 40 years ago, experts said. Systems known as infill provide more give, although some players still prefer natural grass.

"The Astroturf from the '70s was just a quarter-inch of nylon carpet glued to a rubber mat," said Murray Cook, the Columbia-based president of the SportsTurf Services division of The Brickman Group. "[Former Cincinnati Bengal] Reggie Williams once told me that if they had the new infill product during his playing career, he probably could have extended his years as a football player."

King said one thing hasn't changed in sports over the years. Athletes, he said, are as unpredictable as ever in how they respond to injuries. "Every individual is unique," the physician said.

Traber agrees.


"Look at [two-time American League Most Valuable Player] Juan Gonzalez. He'd have a fingernail out of place and he'd be out a few weeks," Traber said. "Then look at Cal Ripken."