Houston Rocket’s Yao Ming’s career may be over due to a non-healing foot fracture. He was sidelined during the playoffs on May 8th with a hairline fracture of his navicular. As of today, this has not healed properly. The nature of his non-union and his prognosis is being kept quiet by the team physicians, but it is evident that there is a problem. Most stress fractures heal completely in 6 to 8 weeks. This is not the 7 foot 6 inch center’s first fracture. He has been out portions of the last three seasons with stress fractures in his leg and foot. Perhaps his lanky frame just can’ handle the stress of the NBA? Why is it that some fractures don’t heal?
Looking at his present injury, stress fractures of the navicular (the cornerstone of your arch) are often slow to heal due to three factors, blood supply to the bone itself, underestimating the extent of the initial fracture so delaying aggressive treatment and too much abnormal stress on the healing bone. Other medical issues can delay bone healing like lack of Vitamin D, poor calcium uptake and many other systemic problems like diabetes, hypothyroidism and peripheral vascular disease. Many of these fractures are actually missed due to lack of specific x-ray findings. Many fractures are actually misdiagnosed for months. Plain film x-rays are often read as normal so the fracture is missed until symptoms increase. Early symptoms can be diffuse and non-specific so the index of suspicion is also low. A bone scan, MRI or CT scan can identify the specific fracture. CT scan is often the most helpful in identifying the extent of the fracture and guiding treatment. For a non-displaced stress fracture, cast immobilization is the first line therapy. Studies have shown that non-weight bearing immobilization in a cast for at least 6 weeks is usually around 80-86% successful. For those that do not heal this way, surgical fixation of the fracture can be helpful and a bone graft may be needed for long standing non-unions.
Follow up care fro a navicular fracture often includes physical therapy and custom foot orthotics. Abnormal biomechanics of the foot often are one of the causes of these fractures, so biomechanical control is crucial to distribute the abnormal stress so an athlete can return to sports and have a lower risk of recurrence.
Yao Ming has had multiple stress fractures during his career increasing the likelihood of traumatic arthritis from avascular necrosis (not enough blood supply to heal so the bone crumbles) in his foot causing him to retire. The next few months will tell the tale for this multi-million dollar All Star. Can he heal his fracture and return to sport? The Rocket’s fans are praying for divine intervention to cure their dominant center.