Two-time National Hockey League scoring champion Mario Lemieux is undergoing treatment for a rare, potentially career-threatening bone infection that can cause severe pain, but he is recovering quickly and should play again, his doctor said Thursday. Dr. Charles Burke, the Pittsburgh Penguins' orthopedist, said "it is way too early" to speculate Lemieux's career is in danger and challenged reports that the center has a potentially serious bone disease.
In a copyright story Thursday, the Pittsburgh Press quoted doctors who said Lemieux, 25, has a form of vertebral osteomyelitis, which damages the bony portion of the spine. The disease can cause debilitating, even crippling pain.
Burke has hesitated to use the word "osteomyelitis."
"It's isn't a disease, it's an infection," he said. "Mario has what we've said all along, a disc infection that has affected the bone. Nothing has changed. Using a formal, strict medical interpretation can be confusing and misleading."
The infection occurred in the fourth lumbar vertebra in Lemieux's lower back, where he had surgery in July to partially remove a herniated disk. Doctors don't know if the infection resulted from the surgery or a flu-like condition Lemieux developed later.
Burke has preferred to call Lemieux's condition diskitis, an infection that invades the tissue and cartilage and becomes more serious when it affects the bone.
Lemieux's pain has lessened and the inflammation has decreased in recent weeks. If the infection has left and no bone damage is detected, he could resume playing by early January.
"The severity of the problem can't be ignored but I'm happy so far. His recovery is going by the book," Burke said.
Lemieux signed a five-year, $12-million guaranteed contract 15 months ago.