With the news of NHL player Marian Hossa’s debilitating skin disorder, one which the all-star says will keep him out of hockey for the whole of next season, we turn to the issue of skin diseases in sports and find that they’re not all that rare. In fact, skin conditions are the most common medical problem athletes will face in their careers.
On Wednesday, Chicago Blackhawks forward Marian Hossa released a statement, saying that he is effectively out of commission for all of next year’s NHL season due to a “progressive skin disorder” for which he has been receiving treatment over the last few years.
“Due to the severe side effects associated with those medications, playing hockey is not possible for me during the upcoming 2017-18 season,” says Hossa, who has played for five different teams over his Hall of Fame calibre 19-year career. “While I am disappointed that I will not be able to play, I have to consider the severity of my condition and how the treatments have impacted my life both on and off the ice.”
Blackhawks team physician Dr. Michael Terry said that Hossa’s problem has become more and more difficult to control with conventional medications while Hossa was still playing hockey, hence the year-long departure. “Because of the dramatic nature of the medications required and their decreasing effectiveness, we strongly support [Hossa’s] decision not to play during the 2017-18 season,” said Terry.
Although unconfirmed, there is speculation that Hossa’s problem may be connected to his hockey equipment, something that has a bit of history in the NHL. In the 1970’s and 80s, dozens of players were afflicted by a skin rash which was colloquially given names such as “the plague” or “the gunk”. The problem was severe enough to end some players’ careers, yet at the time, medical personnel weren’t able to pin down the cause.
One of the afflicted was Tom Reid, a defenceman for the Blackhawks and Minnesota North Stars and current broadcaster for the Minnesota Wild, whose playing was cut short in 1978.
“It was pretty painful. It was at the point where my whole side was just pus,” said Reid. “They couldn’t figure out what it was. I’d be wrapping towels around my body, which helped —the problem was when I had to take the towels off. I couldn’t sleep— for a while I was sleeping sitting upright in a wooden chair. It got to the point by the end where they couldn’t give me any more cortisone. I had to retire.”
At the time, theories for the mystifying condition abounded, from the dyes and detergents in uniforms to the fibreglass in sticks, even to psychological issues coming from scoring droughts. In hindsight, some experts attribute the skin problem to chemicals like formaldehyde used to prevent mildewing in hockey equipment, although Reid himself says he believes his condition was caused by a combination of friction and sweat. “I got relief by staying away from the rink,” Reid said.
In fact, skin conditions are well known to pro athletes. “The most common injuries afflicting the athlete affect the skin,” says Dr. Brian Adams, Chair of Dermatology at the University of Cincinnati and sports dermatology specialist. Dr. Adams spoke to Cantech Letter and related that, for one, the close, skin-to-skin contact between athletes in many sports means that skin infections can get passed on quite easily. “Staph infections like impetigo and boils, viral infections like herpes and fungals like tine pedis (Athlete’s foot) can all be easily spread through sports teams,” says Dr. Adams.
Some sports are more prone to passing on infections than others. Take the intense physical contact in wrestling, for example. Cases of herpes simplex are so common in wrestling that the disease also goes by the name herpes gladiatorum, and wrestlers sparring with an infected partner have a one-in-three chance of contracting the disease.
Pro football has had its battles with contagious skin diseases, especially staph (Staphylococcus) infections which have sidelined a number of players over the years. Last year, Houston Texans star J.J. Watt revealed that he nearly lost his leg due to a virulent staph infection. “One Friday night last season, I noticed some weird bumps on my knee,” Watt wrote in the Players’ Tribune. “I thought it was a rash, so I went and asked our trainer if he had any cream. He looked at my knee and said, ‘That looks really bad. We have to get you to the hospital right now.” Thanks to a quick response involving rounds of antibiotic treatment, Watt was well enough to play the team’s next game.
Most serious are cases of MRSA (methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus) which is both highly contagious and antibiotic resistant. Locker rooms and weight rooms are ripe grounds for passing on the superbug, says Jeff Hageman, epidemiologist with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States. “It can come off our skin and onto items — such as towels that are shared on the sidelines,” said Hageman, to ESPN. “So if someone has an infection, picks up a towel, the next person wipes their face with the same towel, that’s a potential route of transmission as well.”
The profuse sweating in sports is also an issue, as it soaks the skin and softens it, making it more easily penetrated by microorganisms. Add to that the fact that an athlete’s equipment is constantly being pressed up against the skin, effectively creating a perfect environment for bacteria and other microorganisms, and conditions are ripe for not just contracting skin problems but having trouble getting rid of them. Pre-existing conditions like eczema, for example, can become more serious for athletes who sweat a lot.
While not commenting on Hossa’s case in particular, Dr. Adams said that treatment programs for skin conditions — as well as their side effects — can vary depending on the issue. “There are many therapies both for serious skin conditions and routine skin conditions that can have untoward side effects,” says Dr. Adams. “In general, the more serious therapies have higher risks.”
Below: Is Marian Hossa allergic to his gear?