Are ACL Injuries Becoming More Prevalent in Sports?
In an era of fantasy sports and twitter injury updates, it is pretty difficult not to hear about your favorite athlete’s career-threatening injury as soon as it occurs. The number of noteworthy athletes who have injured their ACLs in the last few years seems almost immeasurable–names like Derrick Rose, Iman Shumpert, Adrian Peterson, Carson Palmer, University of Georgia running back Todd Gurley. In the 2014 NFL season alone, two players, Lamarr Houston of the Chicago Bears and Stephen Tulloch of Detroit Lions, tore their ACLs while celebrating after the play!
In addition to the perceived proliferation of injuries in professional sports, youth ACL tears are on the rise. A 2011 report by the American Academy of Pediatrics found ACL injuries increased by 400 percent from 1999-2011 in athletes below the age of 18. As more children are seriously competing in sports at younger ages, there are more parents and children dealing with the devastating effects of ACL injury, repair and recovery. Because youth bodies are, in many cases, still undergoing major physical transformation through their teens, methods of ACL repair may be different. For instance, surgical repair may be delayed until it is felt the child has fully developed. Recovery from ACL injury at any age must include intensive physical therapy.
Field surfaces are also changing on every level across all sports. Today, it seems one would be hard-pressed to find a football stadium being built that does not have field turf as its game surface. Field turf, by some estimates, is easier to maintain and is suitable for both indoor and outdoor games. And while there are definite benefits to field turf, there is a mounting list of drawbacks. A March 2010 study by the NFL’s Injury and Safety Panel found that players were 88 percent more likely to tear their ACL on field turf than on a natural grass surface. With many organizations opting to use field turf, surely choice of playing surface must play a role in the number ACL injuries today.
It is widely accepted that athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than those of the past, so logically they should be less prone to injury right? Wrong. In order to rupture the ACL, an athlete’s lower leg bone, the tibia, either shifts forward or rotates inward rapidly as a result of stopping quickly, changing direction, landing awkwardly or being physically contacted at an abnormal angle at the exact moment a large load is placed on the knee joint. As athletes get bigger, stronger and faster, their joints are having a hard time keeping up. When the modern NFL running back makes a cut carrying 50 lbs more muscle than he did 50 years ago, the knee must absorb all of that force. When the joint is unable to do so, ACL ruptures can occur.
Though social media, fantasy alerts, and the constant availability of information make it seem there are more ACL injuries occurring today than in the past, there has not been enough exhaustive research to prove modern athletes are more susceptible to ACL injury. Though there are a number of factors that would suggest athletes today are at greater risk of sustaining ACL tears, it remains to be seen whether they should be more concerned about the possibility of an ACL tear than those in the past.