Sports culture fuels orthopedics boom

  • Article by: JEREMY OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 11, 2014 - 3:18 PM

An active and aging clientele makes orthopedics growing field, and provides an entry for Mayo downtown.

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Just over two months after his second hip replacement, Bob Niebuhr, 68, works out hard at Life Time Fitness in Woodbury, Minn., on Friday, February 7, 2014. Niebuhr works out five times a week for about an hour.

Photo: Renee Jones Schneider, Star Tribune

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Over 40 years, Bob Niebuhr learned that handball doesn’t have to be a young man’s game — that an old man can deliciously keep a young man running around the court by swatting the ball with the proper power, precision and geo­metry. So when Niebuhr, 68, saw the doctor last week for a checkup after his second hip replacement, he had one burning question:

“How about handball?”

Niebuhr’s passion helps explain the explosive growth of Twin Cities clinics specializing in orthopedics and sports medicine. Minnesota has seen some $66 million in capital projects related to orthopedic care between 2008 and 2012.

And it is why the Mayo Clinic — after years of flirting with a medical presence in the Twin Cities — broke through last week with the announcement of a downtown Minneapolis sports medicine center in league with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

“The growth is being driven by a more active population, whether that happens to be in competitive sports or fitness activities,” said Dr. Michael Stuart, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center, who is in Sochi now as team doctor for USA Hockey. “I have a 65-year-old patient who plays 120 softball games a year.”

Across the Twin Cities, orthopedic clinics report booming business.

At St. Croix Orthopaedics in Stillwater, visits to urgent care more than doubled from its first year, 2012, to last year. At the TRIA orthopedic center in Bloomington, half the injury patients are athletes — many of whom line up at the walk-in clinic in football pads or jogging outfits.

“You walk over to our acute injury clinic, and you will see athletes with three or four different letter jackets on,” said Ted Wegleitner, TRIA’s chief operating officer.

The growth appears at the margins of the age spectrum, with children suffering the breaks and strains of high-level sports participation, and older adults wearing out joints after decades of running, biking or — in Niebuhr’s case — lunging after rubber balls.

“It was hard to turn my hips, and it was painful to hit the ball and follow through and to move,” said Niebuhr, who learned handball at college in La Crosse, Wis. “When you play you’re moving side to side, up and back, diagonally, you know? I would move back and really feel it.”

‘Will I be able to ski?’

Sports has always been a seductive market for business — sometimes to excess, considering reports that the Twin Cities area is oversaturated with golf courses and sports training domes.

The key question is whether Mayo’s venture will cater to an expanding market of athletes, young and old, or just intensify competition in a community where TRIA, Twin Cities Orthopedics, Summit Orthopedics, the University of Minnesota and St. Croix are among the major players.

The growing intensity of youth sports has contributed to the trend, as children specialize in their chosen sports and become prone to overuse injuries, sprains and concussions.

Stuart said there has been “quite an epidemic” of young female athletes with disruptions to their anterior cruciate ligaments, the so-called ACLs that regulate knee motion.

But it is the size and attitude of the baby boomer generation that have orthopedic center leaders confident there will be enough patients to go around. The Greatest Generation of adults, born in the first half of the 20th century, might have accepted the need to slow down, but the boomers born in the 1950s and 1960s have not, said Dr. David Fischer, an orthopedic surgeon who co-founded TRIA in 2005.

“Where our parents would have accepted a bad knee and changed their activities, this population in large part doesn’t want to do that,” he said. “They’re asking ‘Will I be able to play tennis? Will I be able to ski?’ ”

Generally, he added, their expectations are “reasonable.”

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