A recurring athletic hell: ACL injuries

Growing up, I was surrounded by sports. My father was a three-sport athlete in high school and excelled in each. At the University of Georgia, you could find him punting for the Bulldogs in the fall and dominating the pitching mound in the spring. He was drafted in the first round after his junior year to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals and had a very successful career before retiring in 1996.

I idolized my sister growing up because she controlled the soccer field and was a much more dominant force than I ever was on the pitch. She lead her team to a final four appearance in the state playoffs as an unstoppable center mid. Liza went on to play collegiate soccer for a short time.

My twin brother and I played soccer together when we were younger, but Sam hung up his soccer cleats to follow in my dad’s footsteps as a star pitcher and first baseman – as well as being the go-to three point shooter on any basketball team he played for. He is now playing collegiate baseball as an assertive and consistent left handed pitcher with a mean forkball.

I myself was a soccer player. I followed in my sister’s path and played soccer for my high school. We both started varsity every year, and we both helped our teams go on to win region championships. Unlike my siblings, however, competing at the high school level was enough for me.

Between the three of us, I am definitely the least competitive. Liza and Sam are very similar in the sense that they have to win at everything. Unfortunately, they have another, more horrific thing in common that more and more athletes seem to face.

Liza tore her ACL as a freshman in high school while playing basketball, causing her to miss her first year of varsity soccer. I remember nearly crying the day of her surgery. She returned home with her leg was in a huge cast, and she couldn’t even get up to go to the bathroom without sobbing. She went through months of physical therapy, and when she was finally cleared to play, she could only be on the field for small increments of time. Nearly two years later, she could finally play without a brace, and it seemed as if this would become a distant memory.

But six years later, my brother tore his ACL during his junior year in a varsity basketball game. The MRI results came back, and we all cried, knowing the grueling months that were about to come. It stole his baseball season away from him, and he decided not to return to basketball his senior year, hoping to catch up on the recruiting process for baseball. It was the hardest decision he had ever made.

Both Liza and Sam attended over 90 physical therapy sessions over the course of eight months.

Dr. Harry Ferran, an orthopedic surgeon at Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville, GA, has seen this problem rising for many years. He specializes in multiple surgical procedures, one being of the anterior cruciate ligament. He is also the man who repaired the ACLs of my sister and brother. I contacted Dr. Ferran and asked him a few questions about this rising issue. “It has become somewhat of an epidemic in young athletes,” he said. “Athletes today are practicing, training and playing at intensities not seen in the past.”

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

If you play a sport or know someone who does, then you have probably heard of this injury before. I know 12 people off the top of my head who have torn their ACL – some multiple times. Athletes everywhere have begun to fear the day they start having pain in their knees. If they have already torn their ACL, there is always the dread of retearing it. Or, in many cases, while one knee is recuperating from surgery, the other knee overcompensates and tears as well. “Some studies have shown that a reconstructed torn ACL may have less chance of retear than that of the other healthy knee,” Dr Ferran stated.

In the past two decades, the rate of ACL injuries has shot up exponentially. According to the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, up to 200,000 ACL injuries occur in a given year. And, just as shocking, the same source reports that this injury accounts for more than $500 million in U.S. health-care costs each year.

So not only is a torn ACL a physical strain on the tearee, but it is also a financial strain on families everywhere. The cost of the surgery along with the multiple months of physical therapy, Dr.’s visits and MRI costs can be upwards of $10-15,000. Fortunately, a lot of this can be covered by insurance, but in many cases it doesn’t cover every last penny.

And shoutout to girls everywhere: you are at a higher risk than your male counterparts. “There are estimates that the incidence of female ACL tears is seven to eight times that of males when comparing similar numbers of each involved in sports,” Dr. Ferran explained. “Some feel women land from a jump with stiffer knees than men. The pelvis is wider in females, so some think this puts increased strain on knees.” He even suggested that there are theories rising about how the size of a woman’s ACL is smaller in relative size than that of a man’s.

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons

While this outbreak may seem completely blameless, coaches and parents can be a huge factor. If a child is pushed to play a sport year round, it can lead to potential injuries in knees and shoulders. “It is felt that fatigued muscles from too much training may lead to more ligament injuries,” Dr. Ferran voiced. “Coaches and parents are a factor.” It is said that young athletes need at least three to four months of offseason a year in order to give their bodies time to relax and recover from the strain of competing.

Unfortunately, this injury is not inclusive to teens. Multiple ACL injuries have been taking victims of the NFL, NBA, and MLS, including Tom Brady, Jabari Parker and Alex Morgan.

Newly acquired New York Knicks point guard Derrick Rose tore his ACL back in 2012, and many people believe that he hasn’t been the same since. “That’s the closest thing to death,” Derrick said back in a 2012 interview with USA Today, “the closest to death I’ve gotten to.” Even now, some wonder what kind of player he could be if he had never gotten hurt.

The same year, Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson also suffered from an ACL tear. When he recalled his time before therapy he said, “I knew it would be the toughest thing I had.”

Two dominant athletes robbed by the same unforgiving injury.

If there is a silver lining that has appeared from horrible, hellish nightmare, it is that doctors, physical therapists and trainers all across the country are starting to hone in on exercises and tips to prevent athletes from facing this demoralizing injury. “Fortunately, the surgery has continued to improve and results are generally good,” said Dr. Ferran

So to all of the athletes out there: be careful and play hard.

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