Are rates of ACL injuries in youth athletes rising?

More children and young adults are participating in sports at younger ages and at higher levels of competition. As a result, anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in young athletes are becoming increasingly common. In New York State the rate of ACL reconstructions has almost tripled from 1990 to 2009. The rising rate of ACL reconstructions is indicative of an increasing rate of ACL injuries—it may even underestimate the true rate of ACL tears since not all injuries are diagnosed or treated operatively.

These rising rates of injury are especially concerning due to the risks to operating on patients who have not yet finished growing. Surgeons have to be careful to not disturb the epiphyseal plate and hinder future growth when creating tunnels and fixating the new graft. Another option besides reconstruction would be to treat the injuries non-operatively, but research has shown that patients have complained of instability, pain, swelling, and irritability following non-operative treatment of ACL tears.

Rising rates of ACL tears are a major concern, but there are steps that can help protect young athletes. First and foremost is injury prevention. Many exercise and strengthening programs have been developed to help athletes learn the proper movements that decrease risk of ACL injury and allow athletes to perform at their best. There are many resources available online detailing these exercises, including my previous blog posts (here and here).

However, if an injury has occurred and ACL tear is suspected, it is important to consult a physician and obtain an MRI to ensure an accurate diagnosis. Untreated, ACL tears can lead to further knee injury and even arthritis that can negatively impact a young athlete’s ability to play their sport. By utilizing proper prevention exercises and diagnosing and treating injuries efficiently, we can help young athletes stay in the game.

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