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An ounce of prevention may avoid an ACL injury

September 29, 2008 |  4:05 pm

Female athletes are at a disadvantage when it comes to anterior cruciate ligament injuries, suffering more than their male counterparts. ACL injuries involve a ligament in the knee joint that helps with stabilization, but that ligament often tears during activities that put an enormous amount of strain on the knee, such as soccer, basketball and gymnastics.

SoccerThat’s why so much emphasis has been put recently on prevention — stretching and strengthening programs that shore up not only the muscles surrounding the knee, but other muscle groups that affect muscle balance and coordination as well. A study in the August issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine found that female college soccer players who participated in a specific warm-up program had an overall injury rate 1.7 times less than the control group. Non-contact ACL injuries in the intervention group were 3.3 times less than in the control group.

So it’s not a bad time to remind female athletes that a little prevention can go a long way. And although many coaches and communities are aware of structured prevention programs, some are still in the dark.

While studies like this often up the awareness factor, the news doesn’t always get out. "There are some communities in which we haven’t done a perfect job in disseminating the information," says Holly Silvers, a physical therapist and director of research for the Santa Monica Orthopaedic and Sports Medicine Research Foundation. She adds that some communities might also not have the finances to implement programs.

Silvers helped develop the Prevent injury, Enhance Performance Program, a training session warm-up that concentrates on increasing flexibility, strength and targets muscle imbalances (other programs exist as well). The American Physical Therapy Assn. features some ACL prevention exercises on its website.

Silvers and others continue to look for contributing factors to ACL injuries, including hormones, biomechanics — even the types of turf on which athletes play. Health care professionals are also concerned about how much young athletes are playing, and the fact that they focus on one sport early on.

"By virtue of them selecting one sport, are they at risk for overtraining?" Silvers says. "Is there not enough unorganized play — are things too structured now? There are so many sociological things that we can look at as well. We have kids coming in who are 11 and 12 with ACL tears."

-- Jeannine Stein

Photo of the USA's and Brazil's women's soccer teams competing in the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing by Scott Strazzante /Chicago Tribune