I spent this week relearning to walk. After weeks of pain, doctor’s visits, painkillers, and slowly atrophying on the couch, I hardly imagined that these first steps would be the most humbling, and most frustrating part of the process. I owe these pleasures to a torn anterior cruciate ligament, the ACL. When I broke the news to my family, they all said the same thing: “Welcome to the club.” As a family of sports junkies, I am the last to get knee surgery. Both of my parents have had at least two. Athletes are conditioned to expect injury as an inevitable obstacle or a right of passage to your maturation as a competitor. As any competitive athlete can tell you, the torn ACL is a ubiquitous injury, scourge of soccer players and skiers everywhere. Many athletes can relate, from first or second-hand experience: ACL injuries rank as the single largest problem in orthopedic sports medicine.
What I did not know was that women are especially prone to knee injuries. Experts estimate women to be up to 8 times more likely than men to tear an ACL. Athletes aged 14-19 are most at-risk. My physical therapist joked the other day, “It’s women and soccer that keep me in a job.” I might have laughed had I not been busy writhing in pain while she pushed and prodded my knee with torturous, well-intentioned hands. My torn ACL was indeed the result of soccer.
The majority of ACL tears occur from non-contact deceleration or changing of direction. Mine was textbook: stop, cut, and the notorious “pop” before going down. After many months and doctor’s visits, I was ushered through OHSU’s glossy doors, exalting that I am still on my parents’ health insurance plan. A very capable specialist removed part of my hamstring and secured it to where my ACL should have been. About 150,000 ACL tears occur every year in the U.S. with an estimated $500 million price tag. Women will account for an increasing percentage of these injuries due to physiological and hormonal differences (although theories abound as to the specifics).
This can change.
Orthopedic experts and athletic trainers believe that ACL injuries can be easily prevented by targeted warm-ups and strength training. For women, many of these programs involve plyometric warm-ups and training of the quads and hamstrings. Many organizations now feature ACL Injury Prevention Programs, an undertaking that should be especially encouraged in young, female athletes. Parents and players should push their schools and clubs to institute these regimes as they will save money and teach young players how to compete safely down the road. There are certainly obstacles for female athletes to overcome but ACL tears need not be one of them.