Knee-related injuries among teens and twenty-somethings is at an all-time high. Contributing factors to knee injuries are more young people playing sports and more leagues hosting year-round programs. Knee Injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in kids and teens jumped 147.8% in 2014 from 2005, according to the National Institutes of Health. Some statistics say about a third of preteen and teen soccer players will end up with an ACL tear. Of the 350,000 patients who have ACL reconstruction surgery in the U.S. each year, young athletes represent the fastest growing group.
Females More Prone to Knee Injuries
Interestingly, studies like this one from NIH indicate that female athletes are more prone to get ACL injuries. For instance, female basketball players are 3.5 times more likely to sustain an ACL injury than males, and 2.8 more times in soccer. “The intrinsic differences between male and female athletes that would explain why women tear the ACL two to eight times more frequently than men,” NIH says, noting that women lack as much muscular strength in their legs and especially hips which can lead to a higher risk of ACL injuries.
ACL injuries are just the start of the knee injuries. We decided to interview two female athletes that had knee issues to see how they dealt with them.
Story of a softball knee injury
Lacey Morrison is a 25 year-old from New Jersey. Growing up she played softball and did competitive cheerleading. Joint issues were common in her family and at a young age she was told she had a disease called Osgood- Schlatter. It’s a condition that causes pain and swelling below the knee joint, as well as potential inflammation of the patellar tendon, which stretches over the kneecap. It is most often found in young athletes who play sports that require a lot of jumping and/or running.
Knee like a train off its track
She went through countless knee braces that relieved the pain in the moment of the activity. However, the ache was always there. In her freshman year of high school she was playing softball when her was her turn at bat. When she ran to first base, “the girl was standing directly on the base so when I was supposed to run through the base I was unable to do so. I had to pivot on and pivot off. While doing so they described my knee as a train track and it came off the track so all the cords snapped. My softball ‘career’ was over from that point forward.”
Weeks in painful recovery
She had a Patella realignment, lateral release and microfracture. “I was devastated. I was constantly at physical therapy and when I wasn’t I was home in this contraption.” She had to lay her leg in this machine that would move it up and down more & more each day. It was 2 hour increments, three times a day, so a total of 6 hours for many weeks until I hit 90 degrees.”
Infection sets in
Unfortunately her surgery failed and a small, painful cartilage ball started growing in her knee. Her doctor recommended a Boston specialist to do a relatively new surgery called Autologous chondrocyte implantation (ACI) to treat cartilage defects of the knee. Unfortunately, that surgery didn’t go well either, as she discovered she was allergic to the stitches. She developed a staph infection from the hospital. She received antibiotics to fight infection, but as it healed, she developed a noticeable keloid scar that made her feel self-conscious.
Advice for other athletes
“Everything happens for a reason.” Lacey says. The experience “has made me beyond strong.” “It’s also made me closer with my other family members since we’ve all been through something similar with our joints.” Her advice to any female athletes is to build up their muscles and don’t let symptoms stemming from bad joints go unaddressed. “Get the brace, do the exercises, take vitamins – stay on top of it,” she says. “It may not be preventable but it might help to push it off longer. Mentally – stay strong and don’t let it get the best of you.”
Pursuing a career in law enforcement
Lacey is pursuing a career in law enforcement so muscle strength is critical. After years of physical therapy, she now works with personal trainer, too. Staple exercises include body weight strength training aimed at building her quads, bike riding and icing whenever she’s sore.
While she’s been ready for a knee replacement for many years, doctors ask her to put it off because the replacements last an average 20 years. “I am now smarter about what I do so it doesn’t cause pain,” Lacey says. She avoids jumping on trampolines, crazy jumps, ice skating. “I ice when needed and when it’s going to rain I am ready for it to ache more than usual.”
Ultimately, she knows her surgery days are not over. “I was negative for the longest time; it consumed me. I can now say it’s made me stronger than I have ever been. For someone going through something similar just remember keep your head up and be an advocate for yourself.”
Soccer Injury leads to ACL Surgery
Kylie, a 25 year-old from New Jersey, says she never had a knee issue until her junior year of college. It was then she tore her ACL during pre-game soccer warm ups on a turf field. She says she had three different top options for ACL repair surgery: patellar (taking a piece of your knee cap and using it as a new ACL), hamstring (using a piece of the hamstring for a new ACL), and cadaver (using an ACL from a deceased person). “There’s pros and cons of each method,” she says, “but I chose to go with the patellar method. So I couldn’t kneel for a while but I didn’t trust a cadaver and didn’t want to have to rehab two different areas (quad & hamstring).”
Rehabbing intensively, back playing in 6 months
While she says it was definitely one of the hardest times of my life because she had a lot going on personally, she doesn’t have regrets. “I am proud of the fact that I overcame it all. I rehabbed intensely, was back in net playing goalie with no brace at just 6 months out of surgery. Her team made conference champions the next year, while she was named MVP of the tournament.
Was surgery avoidable?
Could she have done anything to avoid her ACL surgery? Even though she was doing all the right things to avoid an injury, freak accidents occur. “I worked at a local gym in my town all through high school and had unlimited free access to the gym. The trainers gave me workouts and drills to avoid injuring my knees. The accident on the turf that day was a freak accident. My cleats got stuck in turf so my lower leg was stationary, while the top part of my leg turned with my body so it completely snapped my ACL.”
Strengthening muscles is key to prevention
Kylie recommends athletes of all ages work the muscles in their legs equally. “Although there are multiple theories behind why ACL tears happen,” she says. “One of the more proven ways is that a person’s quads are much more stronger/worked out more than their hamstrings, or vice versa.”
No matter how awful as it is to experience an ACL (or any ligament for that matter) tear/injury, it’s important to “never give up.” A positive outlook, daily perseverance without overly pushing yourself, and hard work will pay off in the long run. “I like to tell people my story because it’s always nice to hear a positive/uplifting success story of someone overcoming a severe sports injury by accomplishing or achieving an amazing goal.”
While knee injuries and conditions such as concussions are common in youth sports, not every athlete will be affected. A little knowledge can go a long way toward prevention or alleviating the outcomes.
— Patty Yeager