USA TODAY High School Sports and the National Athletic Trainers’ Association have partnered on a monthly column to address injuries, prevention and related issues to help schools, coaches and student-athletes. Here is the first column of the new year from Scott Sailor, the president of NATA.
The ACL tear is the most devastating knee injury for all sports in terms of time loss from play and long-term consequences. Damage to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) can happen in any sport, but research suggests that athletes who participate in football, basketball and soccer are at greater risk.
The ACL runs diagonally in the middle of the knee and provides rotational stability. The ACL is only one of the ligaments inside the knee joint, and almost half of all ACL tears are accompanied by damage to other ligaments or cartilage in the knee. The most common ways to injure the ACL (approximately 75 percent) include non-contact injury mechanisms such as quick changes of direction and landing.
Numerous research studies suggest female athletes are more prone to ACL injuries. Probably the top reason is that they have different movement patterns during quick changes of direction and landing. Other possibilities could be because of differences in muscular strength or physical conditioning, but it could also be caused by gender differences in lower leg alignment and the effect of estrogen on ligaments. While there is no definitive research that links gender to ACL injuries, female athletes may want to put extra focus on preventative techniques, especially if they play sports that involve a lot of jumping or sudden changes of direction.
One of the most concerning aspects emerging from current research is that joint injuries, such as those resulting from ACL tears, are one of the biggest risk factors for developing osteoarthritis. According to the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance, up to 50 percent of those diagnosed with an ACL or meniscus tear will develop osteoarthritis 10 to 20 years after the injury.
Because we know ACL tears are painful, involve a lengthy rehabilitation process and can lead to long-term health consequences such as osteoarthritis, it’s important to consider preventative measures that can reduce your risk of ACL injury.
If you’re concerned about ACL injury, start by talking to your school’s athletic trainer or other sports medicine specialist. They should be able to help you identify any muscle areas, such as weak hips, that could lead to increased risk. They can also work with you to develop a preventative training program that incorporates balance, agility, strength and flexibility exercises specifically designed to lower the risk of ACL injury. Research suggests that when done correctly, these preventative programs help reduce the risk of ACL and other traumatic knee injuries by more than 50 percent.
The Osteoarthritis Action Alliance has created a helpful handout with suggested exercises to help prevent ACL injury. Research shows the most effective programs are performed two or three times per week for 10 or 15 minutes. That’s a relatively small time commitment that you could easily incorporate into existing exercise routines.
Still wondering if you really need to add preventative exercises into your strength and conditioning regimen? Consider this added bonus: All the exercises suggested to prevent ACL and other knee injuries are also associated with a general increase in athletic performance. Not only can you reduce your risk of knee injury, but you could improve your vertical leap, aerobic fitness and sprint speed. And who doesn’t want to run faster and jump higher?