Background: There is a relative paucity of data regarding the effect of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction on the abil- ity of American high school and collegiate football players to return to play at the same level of competition as before their injury or to progress to play at the next level of competition.
Purpose: (1) To identify the percentage of high school and collegiate American football players who successfully returned to play at their previous level of competition, (2) to investigate self-reported performance for those players able to return to play or rea- son(s) for not returning to play, and (3) to elucidate risk factors responsible for players not being able to return to play or not re- turning to the same level of performance.
Study Design: Cohort study; Level of evidence, 3.
Methods: This study was a retrospective analysis of prospective patients taken from the Multicenter Orthopaedic Outcomes Net- work (MOON) cohort who identified football as their primary or secondary sport. Identified patients were then questioned in a structured interview regarding their ACL injury, participation in football before their injury, and factors associated with returning to play. Data were analyzed for player position, concurrent meniscal/ligamentous/chondral injury, surgical technique and graft used for ACL reconstruction, and issues pertaining to timing and ability to return to play.
Results: One hundred forty-seven players (including 68 high school and 26 collegiate) met our criteria and were contacted from the 2002 and 2003 MOON cohorts. Return to play rates for all high school and collegiate athletes were similar (63% and 69%, respectively). Based on player perception, 43% of the players were able to return to play at the same self-described performance level. Approximately 27% felt they did not perform at a level attained before their ACL tear, and 30% were unable to return to play at all. Although two thirds of players reported some ‘‘other interest’’ contributing to their decision not to return, at both levels of competition, fear of reinjury or further damage was cited by approximately 50% of the players who did not return to play. Analysis of patient-reported outcome scores at a minimum of 2 years after surgery between patients who returned to play and those who did not demonstrated clinically and statistically significant differences in the International Knee Documentation Committee form, Marx Activity Scale, and Knee injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score knee-related quality of life subscale in the collegiate play- ers. Similar clinical differences were not statistically significant in the high school students. Player position did not have a statis- tically significant effect on the ability to return to play for high school players, and 41% of ‘‘skilled’’ position players and 50% of ‘‘nonskilled’’ position players were able to return to play at the same performance level.
Conclusion: Return to play percentages for amateur American football players after ACL reconstruction are not as high as would be expected. While technical aspects of ACL reconstruction and the ensuing rehabilitation have been studied extensively, the psychological factors (primarily a fear of reinjury) influencing the ability to return to play after ACL surgery may be underestimated as a critical factor responsible for athletes not returning to play at any level of competition.