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ACL Injuries Often Career-Ending for NFL Players


The knee's anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) acts like a rubber band that connects your thigh bone to your leg bone and provides stability to the knee. An ACL tear is a common injury among athletes, particularly in sports that call for stopping, planting and pivoting, such as soccer and basketball. In the National Football League (NFL), players who are hit from the side are at greatest risk. Although doctors are hopeful for a full recovery and return to the game, many players are unable to play after a knee ligament tear, according to new research published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

Dr. Vishal Michael Shah of the Richmond Bone and Joint Clinic in Sugarland TX conducted the study based on 49 NFL players who all had surgery to replace the ACL. Of the total, 31 did return to play, but only for an average of slightly less than one year. Age and type of surgery were not associated with the rate of return, but those who had played more games were more likely to go back.

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Dr. Shah’s study is a bit less optimistic about player return than some others have been, but not contradictory. In December 2006, a study conducted by James L. Carey MD and colleagues from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that NFL players who sustain an injury to the ACL were likely able to play again, but they usually return with diminished performance on the field.

The data was collected over a five-year period on 31 NFL running backs and wide receivers who had sustained 33 ACL injuries. Seven of the 33, or 21%, never returned to NFL play. Of the 79% that did return, most had to delay play 9 to 12 months after the injury, but showed a significant decline in “power rating”, a calculation based on total yards and touchdowns.

Read: Proper Training Prevents Common Knee Injuries

Knee pain, stiffness, loss of strength, deconditioning and reduced proprioception (the sense of knowing where your leg is) may be factors explaining the loss of production in players after an ACL injury, the authors theorize. Further, ACL reconstruction does not perfectly recreate the complex anatomy and composition of a person's ACL before injury.

Although ACL injuries among highly trained elite athletes are likely unpreventable, amateur and recreational athletes can prevent ligament injuries by performing training drills that require balance, power, and agility. Pylometric exercises such as jumping and balance drills may also help improve neuromuscular conditioning and reduce the risk of injury to the ligaments.