For 25-year-old Savannah Owens, smalls steps on a short walk are a big milestone.
"You have people telling you this is the prime of your life and that this is the strongest body you'll ever have, and that was not my experience," she said.
Owens has always liked being active. In school, she played volleyball, rode horses and danced. At age 12, she noticed a clicking in her hip.
It would escalate to three different hip surgeries between the ages of 14 to 21.
"It was really hard," Owens said. "I mean, I couldn't walk to the bus stop for my high school. I was offered a position on the varsity team in volleyball and had to turn it down, and that stands out as a pretty hard moment to look back on. I loved practicing. I loved the games. I loved the camaraderie of being on a team."
Dr. Presley Swann, an orthopedic surgeon at Sky Ridge Medical Center in Lone Tree, Colorado, says he's seen a growing number of young female athletes who, like Owens, have suffered for years with hip injury and pain — most ages 18 to 25 who have had problems long before coming to him.
"These patients are frustrated that the system isn't listening to them," Swann said. "They don't feel heard, and sometimes it just takes, 'Here's your diagnosis. Here's why you're hurt.'"
What's partially driving cases, Swann says, is a combination of not giving the body an off-season and the fact more women are impacted by hip dysplasia than men. Hip dysplasia is when the body's hip socket can't fit the ball shaped part of the femur bone. The bone can then move, causing major pain, especially if untreated over time.
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"With female athletes, especially with hip dysplasia, the blessing is also the curse. And what I mean by that is your cheerleaders, your gymnasts, your ballerinas, your dancers, there's a reason why they can do that stuff with their hips and splits and positions," Swann said.
Research from the past two years shows a rise in the number of hip surgeries overall.
One study of hip dysplasia patients under 50 found the highest rate of cases was in patients 14 to 18 years, and female patients had twice the rate of male patients.
"It's clearly showing that while dysplasia is here to stay at a constant rate, our treatment of dysplasia has evolved in a way that is measurable in the course of fifteen years," said Dr. Mario Hevesi, orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine expert with the Mayo Clinic.
Swann says the operating room is always the last resort for his patients. Ideally, he likes to get them into a physical therapy program first.
Owens had her fourth and fifth surgeries back to back in February 2022 with Swann. She's hoping these will be the last.
"That six-month mark, I walked my first mile in years, so that was incredible," Owens said. "It's like getting to know a new body part. There's been a lot of work done in there, so it's never going to be an average hip. So I've just been learning it."
Learning it and loving it, especially the freedom of being on her feet.
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