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Alarmed by the skyrocketing number of young athletes who get anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries, the Illinois Athletic Trainers Association and sports medicine physicians at Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush are urging coaches and athletic directors to institute ACL injury screenings for all young athletes and prevention programs for those more vulnerable to ACL injuries.
According to some research, about 400,000 ACL injuries occur in the U.S. every year, making ACL tears among the most common injuries in young athletes today. National studies show a significant rise in ACL injuries, especially in athletes under 25 years of age.
The IATA, an advocate for safety in sports, and MOR sports medicine physicians, who treat competitive athletes and are team doctors for the Chicago Bulls and Chicago White Sox, are launching "Knees for Life," a public awareness campaign designed to educate athletic trainers, coaches and parents about steps they can take to help prevent ACL tears in athletes.
"It's a known fact in the athletic trainer community that if your high schooler is a college-bound athlete in soccer, lacrosse, football, hockey or gymnastics, there is a good chance of an ACL injury," says IATA President Eric Streeter.
"The reasons are stiffer competition; athletes who push themselves to emulate the pros; and because of sheer numbers - more young people than ever are playing team sports."
"I am very troubled by the escalating number of athletes who come to see me with ACL injuries," says Dr. Bernard R. Bach, Jr., MOR sports medicine director. "In just five years, the number of ACL patients seen by our physicians has more than doubled, and the number of ACL patients under 25 has tripled."
Dr. Bach added that the majority of his ACL patients are young women.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, female athletes are up to 10 times more likely to tear an ACL compared to their male counterparts. Most physicians agree that this is due in part to the different shape of their hips and because female hormones can loosen ligaments and make ACLs more vulnerable to injury.
The ACL is a ligament that connects the thigh bone to the shin bone and its main function is to stabilize the knee and prevent rotational stress and forward movement of the lower leg.
Athletes who are more prone to ACL injuries usually participate in sports that require pivoting, accelerating and turning quickly, planting or cutting.
Contact ACL injuries occur from an on-field or on-court collision and noncontact ACL injuries are usually the result of a quick pivot, unbalanced landing or acceleration of speed followed by a sudden stop. Experts are most concerned about the rising number of noncontact ACL injuries, as they account for nearly 70 percent of all ACL injuries.
"The goal of this campaign is to shed light on the need for an ACL prevention program for youth sports both in Illinois and nationwide," says Streeter. "It's not just about keeping our athletes playing sports. More importantly, we want them to protect their knees so they can remain active for life."
Studies show that athletes with ACL injuries are up to 10 times more likely to get knee osteoarthritis early and 50 percent of ACL patients will develop knee arthritis in 10 to 20 years. According to the AAOS, knee arthritis is one of the five leading causes of disability in older men and women.
Screenings for balance, instability and muscle weakness can determine if an athlete is biomechanically more prone to getting an ACL injury. The screenings are often designed to categorize the athlete as having a high, medium or low risk of an ACL injury. Once the athlete's risk level is determined, the goal of a prevention program is to move high-risk athletes to the low-risk category.
ACL injury prevention programs often involve plyometric exercises where muscles exert maximum force in a minimum amount of time. Plyometric exercises can help patients improve, balance, agility, stamina and speed.
"While it is difficult to prevent an ACL injury from occurring, the chances of an injury happening can be lowered by performing training drills that emphasize power and agility and by improving muscular reactions with jumping and balance drills," says Dr. Charles Bush-Joseph, MOR sports medicine physician and head team physician for the Chicago White Sox.
In fact, a recent study by the American Academy of Pediatrics says that specific types of physical training can reduce the risk of ACL injury as much as 72 percent, especially in young women.
For more information on prevention for ACL injuries, log on to www.KneesforLife.org to download a prevention exercise brochure and order a prevention gym bag tag for your child.