How to prevent ACL injuries while playing sports

Fitness & Sports Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Sep 8, 2021

When it comes to playing sports, your knees can take a lot of abuse. While you’re jumping, lunging and running, you may be unaware of the stress you’re putting on these join

Women and men are built differently, and women experience more knee injuries than their male counterparts. Especially for women, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament—commonly referred to as the ACL—is one of the most common athletic injuries.

Here are a few tips for avoiding these painful injuries.

Get to know your knee

There are four big ligament structures around the knee. Each ligament is designed to protect the knee from different forces. Each is descriptive of the forces that they are supposed to stop in the shin bone, as related to the thigh bone.

The four ligaments are:

  1. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL): Stops the shin bone going in front of the knee.
  2. Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL): Stops a force going behind the knee.
  3. Medial collateral ligament (MCL): Stops the knee from going to the inside.
  4. Lateral collateral ligament (LCL): Stops a force going to the outside of the knee.

When you have torn the ACL, this can lead to instability in the knee.

You may think such an injury occurs in harsh contact or rough play, but this is not the case for ACL tears. Approximately 70% are non-contact injuries, according to the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, and soccer and basketball are the most common sports in which those injuries occur. That is why more women hurt their ACL.

What an ACL tear feels like

When you injure your ACL, you’ll usually be running and your knee buckles or gives way. Athletes often will hear a pop or feel one. The knee usually swells quickly and they are unable to continue with their sport.

From there, you’ll usually be evaluated as soon as possible to check the looseness in the knee joint. This is called the Lachman test and if you’re taken to the sidelines during a game, your athletic trainer or doctor may perform this test. They may also do a pivot shift to look for rotational looseness in the knee.

In clinic after the injury, the exam may not be reliable because of swelling and pain. So, doctors rely on the on-field exam performed by the trainers or other experts. Our recommendations will be based on your history, the physical exam and possible MRI imaging.

What to expect from ACL surgery

If you’ve had an ACL injury, chances are your doctor will recommend surgery. This is an outpatient day procedure where they make a new ligament for you and replicate the original structure. It can be done with several grafts, trying to mimic the soft tissue of the ACL that connects the femur bone to the tibia.

Most athletes can get back to the same level of function prior to their injury. Even after the six to 12 months it takes for full recovery, it can be hard to feel like your knee is completely back to normal. Even though doctors are much better at this surgical technique than they were decades ago, it takes disciplined rehab and patience on the part of the athlete.

Preventing ACL injuries with proper technique

While our resilient bodies do their best to repair, the best situation is to avoid an ACL injury altogether. A number of local high schools have programs to teach the junior high and high school athletes “proprioceptive training,” or knowing where your knee is while playing sports.

To avoid ACL injuries, it comes down to proper technique when playing and being aware of your body. Don’t miss the big picture and suffer the consequences of a painful ACL injury.

Experiencing knee pain, or hurt yourself playing sports? Find a doctor near you today.

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