Tears and injuries of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee are epidemic in youth sports. Studies have shown that the rate of ACL injuries is increasing as sports participation increases. About a third of preteen and teen soccer players will sustain an ACL tear.
Related post: Treating ACL tears in youth athletes
When teen athletes have a knee injury that has associated swelling, up to two-thirds of them will have an ACL tear. Girls are more than twice as likely to have an ACL injury than boys.
What is the ACL?
ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament:
The ACL stabilizes the knee during front-to-back motions and rotation. It is deep inside the knee so it’s difficult for you or your athlete to feel it and know if the ACL was torn.
An ACL tear isn’t noticeable during most day-to-day activities like walking or climbing stairs. Instead, your child will feel it when they do twisting motions such as playing sports or getting in and out of a car.
Causes of ACL tears in young athletes
The most common way that young people tear their ACLs is actually through non-contact injuries — when an athlete moves in one direction to chase after that ball, then suddenly twists and changes direction. Sports where this is more likely include:
After the pivoting-related injury, the youth athlete may feel like their knee is weak but be able to walk off the field. Parents should be on the lookout for swelling and dull, achy pain following the injury to know if they should see an orthopaedic specialist.
Diagnosing an ACL tear in young players
The first step to diagnosing an ACL tear is getting an X-ray. This noninvasive test provides important information, including:
The limitation of X-rays is they don't show the soft tissues like ligaments or cartilage. To assess those structures, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is needed. MRI offers a look at the ACL and the cartilage on the outside of the bones.
The MRI also offers a view of the growth plates so your child’s doctor has an idea of how much more growing your child has to do. This can inform which nonoperative and operative treatment options are appropriate.
Managing an ACL injury in young athletes
Before your child can undergo treatment, their knee needs to be free of swelling and ready for treatment. These steps are critical:
Preventing ACL injuries in youth athletes
Prevention programs are effective at decreasing ACL injuries by focusing on:
UCLA Health specialists at the Center for Sports Medicine help young athletes recover from sport injuries like ACL tears.
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