Most of us think of hip pain as a problem that occurs when we’re older, maybe beginning in our 50s or beyond. It’s true, hip pain does become more common as we get older. But hip pain in young adults is common too. And in fact, hip pain in teens is more common than you may you think.
In older men and women, a lot of hip pain is caused by arthritis. Years of stress and strain on the joint eventually causes the protective cartilage layer to break down. Friction inside the joint increases, and so do inflammation and pain. Low back problems and other wear-related issues are other common causes of hip pain in older adults. The causes of hip pain in young adults can vary. And that means the treatment for relieving pain can also vary.
Hip Pain in Young Adults & Teens
During the teen years, it’s easy to dismiss discomfort as “growing pains” in the hips. But the fact is, when hip pain develops in a teenager or a young adult, often an underlying hip deformity is to blame. Femoroacetabular impingement (FAI) is a condition that occurs when either the ball or socket portion of the joint is malformed.
Sometimes, both parts are malformed. The malformation means the ball and socket don’t fit together well. As the hip moves, friction between the ball and socket can wind up damaging the cartilage that lines and protects the joint. The resulting inflammation causes pain during the teen years and well into young adulthood. The added wear inside the joint also means it’s a lot more likely arthritis will develop in later years.
FAI is a common cause of hip pain in teenage athletes. In one study, hip shape abnormalities were present in 87 percent of young patients complaining of hip pain.
Although FAI can cause a lot of pain, it doesn’t always cause significant symptoms. In fact, in a study of 134 college football players, 95 percent had hip deformities associated with FAI, even though the players had no symptoms.
In addition to causing pain and increasing the risk of arthritis, FAI can also damage the hip labrum. The labrum is a tough ring of cartilage that helps hold the ball in place inside the socket. In FAI, the malformation increases pressure and friction on the labrum, weakening and sometimes tearing it. Labrum damage typically causes pain in the front of the hip. Other symptoms include thigh pain and the sensation of “clicking” or “sticking” inside the joint.
Hip dysplasia is another type of hip deformity that can cause hip pain in young adults, although it’s more commonly associated with pain in older patients. Like FAI, hip dysplasia involves a deformity that develops as the hip joint grows. In hip dysplasia, the hip socket is shallow, preventing a good “fit” with the round ball part of the joint. The shallow shape means the ball part presses against the rim of the socket. Over time, the added pressure degrades the cartilage on the rim, resulting in pain and, eventually, arthritis.
Recognizing the Signs of Hip Problems in Young Adults
Hip pain might be the most obvious sign of a hip problem, but it’s not the only one. And since hip deformities don’t always cause a lot of pain, it’s important to look for other symptoms.
Tenderness: If the hip feels tender when touched or pressed, it could be bursitis. Bursitis occurs when tiny sacs inside the joint become inflamed. Sometimes, bursitis occurs alongside a deformity, but strenuous activity can also cause bursitis.
“Snapping” sensations: “Snapping hip” most commonly occurs when a tendon gets “caught” on a bony prominence in the hip joint. As you move your hip, the tendon releases and “snaps.” Sometimes, you can hear a “pop” when the tendon snaps free. Snapping hip often occurs on its own, but in some cases, it’s associated with a more serious underlying problem.
Buttock pain: Sometimes, a strain or muscle tear in the buttock area can cause hip pain, as well as pain along the side of the thigh.
Shooting pain or numbness: A sharp, electricity-like pain is a sign of nerve involvement. If a nerve gets trapped or compressed, you can experience pain and numbness anywhere along the length of the nerve. Compression of nerves in the thigh and the lower back are the most common sources of nerve-related hip pain.
Early Treatment is Critical
A lot of people worry that hip pain means they’re going to need joint replacement surgery. But the good news is, most types of hip pain can be treated much more conservatively. Physical therapy, over-the-counter pain medicines, rest, and other nonsurgical treatments are often adequate in relieving hip pain. In other cases, a minimally-invasive procedure called arthroscopy might be used to “fix” an underlying problem.
No matter what causes hip pain in young adults, scheduling an evaluation with Dr. Van Thiel is critical. Left untreated, hip pain can lead to arthritis in later life. On the other hand, early treatment may prevent disability and avoid the need for joint replacement. If you or your child are experiencing hip pain, contact the office and schedule your evaluation today.