PITTSBURGH --Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby does not have a fractured neck and instead is suffering from a soft tissue injury that could be contributing to his concussion-like symptoms, according to an independent specialist who reviewed Crosby’s recent medical tests.
Multiple doctors working with Crosby are not certain when the neck injury occurred – either at the time Crosby was initially diagnosed with a concussion 13 months ago or during the eight games he played this season – but it is considered treatable.
What also isn’t known is whether Crosby, who last played on Dec. 5, currently has both concussion-related symptoms and the neck injury. But during consultations with multiple doctors on both coasts in the last week, Crosby was told the injury to his top two vertebrae can result in concussion-like symptoms.
"Maybe this is an issue that is causing some of these problems and, if we get that under control, that would be great news," Penguins general manager Ray Shero said Tuesday night.
Said Crosby: "From what I've been told, this is something pretty commonly linked with concussion symptoms, and in a way that's encouraging. There's no magic to get rid of it but, if this is contributing, this is something we can obviously treat and work on and hopefully it will go away."
The Penguins remain hopeful, Shero said, that Crosby can return later this season. There also is no sign the injury is career-threatening.
"He's a hockey player and wants to play hockey, and he sought out other medical treatment to get back to playing the game -- and hopefully, through his efforts, this is going to happen soon," Shero said. "There's been no indication from any doctor where he would have to shut it down for season or retire. We're going to try to manage these symptoms and get them under control and get a handle on this and get him back on the ice."
Crosby's concussion-like symptoms forced him to miss the final 41 games and the playoffs last season and 43 games this season, including Tuesday’s home game against Toronto. The injury has been a significant jolt not only to Crosby but to the Penguins, a Stanley Cup favorite before Crosby was hurt last season.
The NHL megastar -- Crosby won the NHL MVP award, a scoring title, the Stanley Cup and an Olympic gold medal by age 22 -- said he "still isn't where I want to be" and, even with an updated diagnosis, his return to the Penguins' lineup is not imminent.
But Crosby said he feels much better than he did two weeks ago and is happy to again be skating with some teammates, as he did Monday and Tuesday. He has not been cleared to practice with the full team.
"I just want to get back out there and I'm trying to do everything I can to do that," Crosby said.
Last weekend's disclosure of the neck injury added yet another twist to a complicated medical drama that has seen the NHL's biggest star limited to eight games since Jan. 5, 2011.
Until then, Crosby's problems were considered to be entirely concussion-related. But, after being encouraged by the Penguins to seek multiple medical opinions, he met last week with Dr. Robert S. Bray, a Los Angeles-based specialist who administered a CT scan and MRI that revealed the neck injury.
Bray's findings were subsequently analyzed by Dr. Alexander Vaccaro, a spinal trauma expert at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia. Vaccaro and other specialists determined there was no fracture in Crosby's neck.
Crosby's agent, Pat Brisson, along with Penguins co-owner Mario Lemieux and CEO David Morehouse, traveled Monday morning to Philadelphia, where Vaccaro reviewed Bray's treatment, which included injecting Crosby to alleviate swelling in the C1-2 joint of the neck. Crosby was told further injections likely won’t be needed.
Vaccaro, Bray and the doctors at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center who have been overseeing Crosby's treatment agree that Crosby is safe, that his injury is treatable, and he will return to action when he is symptom-free.
Crosby and Shero both said there have been no issues with Crosby's Pittsburgh-based medical team, which includes several of the doctors and specialists who developed the ImPACT test that is used to determine when athletes can play again after receiving a concussion.
Because the neck injury wasn't diagnosed until last week, there were rumblings that Crosby might be unhappy that the Penguins-assigned doctors didn't discover the problem sooner.
"The biggest thing I can take from this is this is something I can work on. I can come in and get my neck worked on," the 24-year-old Crosby said. "There is a pretty big possibility this (the neck problem) could be causing some of the (concussion-like) issues. I hope that's the case and with treatment it will improve and hopefully that's the end of it."
Crosby first complained of neck pain after absorbing a hard hit from forward David Steckel, then of the Capitals, in the Washington-Pittsburgh outdoor game at Heinz Field on Jan. 1, 2011. He was diagnosed with a concussion five days later after receiving another hit from the Lightning’s Victor Hedman on Jan. 5.
Crosby experienced dizziness, fatigue, headaches and motion discomfort for months to follow, and he wasn’t cleared for contact work until late in training camp. He then sat out the first six weeks of the season, only to make a dazzling return by scoring two goals and getting two assists Nov. 21 against the Islanders.
But just seven games later, Crosby was sidelined again with concussion-like symptoms following a physical game against the Bruins on Dec. 5. He last went through a full practice on Dec. 7, when he disclosed he was again having headaches.
He was cleared to skate again during the Penguins' Florida road trip in mid-January. He had been skating on his own for two weeks before taking part in a 45-minute workout Monday at Consol Energy Center, along with Jordan Staal and Simon Despres. The three injured players also worked out Tuesday.
Crosby had two goals and 10 assists in the eight games he played this season.