Why Have ACL Tears Become More Common in Pro Sports?

Playing professional sports inherently comes with the risk of injury, especially in a sport like football that involves a lot of physical contact. There are things athletes can do to lessen the possibility of getting injured, but nothing can completely prevent it. Different injuries have different degrees of severity for the athletes who suffer them, with ACL tears being among the most feared injuries in pro sports because they are often season-ending.

Torn ACLs aren’t necessarily as bad as they once were, but they are becoming increasingly more common among professional athletes. Is there a reason for this trend?

Why ACL tears are becoming more common in sports

The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is a key ligament that stabilizes a person’s knee joint. A torn ACL usually occurs in sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction, including football and basketball, because the players often pivot.

ACL tears are becoming more common, including among kids and teens. There are several factors leading to the increase in the injury, one of which is a bigger workload for athletes, who are practicing and playing more than in the past to try to remain at the top of their game.

Players are also faster, which can lead to more frequent stops and changes in direction, causing more injuries. Playing surfaces can also lead to torn ACLs, as can using the wrong equipment, such as using the wrong type of cleat for the playing surface you play on.

Greater awareness of the potential for ACL injuries and improved diagnostics are also reasons for the increase in torn ACLs because the injury is diagnosed more often now than it may have been in the past.

ACL tears in the NFL and NBA

Among the major pro sports leagues in the U.S., the NFL and NBA have the greatest rates of ACL tears. From 2014-2018, the instances of ACL tears in the NFL steadily increased from 45 to 53.

Among the NFL players who have suffered the injury over the past decade are Adrian Peterson, Tom Brady, and Rob Gronkowski. Since 1970, nearly 100 NBA players have suffered torn ACLs. Recent examples of ACL tears in the NBA are former first-round draft picks Jabari Parker and Kristaps Porzingis and who were both top-five picks in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Better recovery from ACL tears now

There is some good news about ACL tears, and it involves an athlete’s recovery from the injury. In the past, an ACL tear was often considered a “death sentence” that could end a player’s career.

While it still often causes the end of a player’s season, it is much more common for players to recover from the injury enough to eventually resume his career. Peterson is perhaps the best example of this. He tore his ACL and MCL in the Vikings’ game in Week 16 of the 2011 season. People feared it might be the end of his career, while he was still in his prime.

Those fears were ultimately unfounded, as he was able to return to the field just eight months after suffering the injury and was able to start the Vikings’ Week 1 game in 2012. He looked like his old self right away, rushing for more than 80 yards and two touchdowns in the season opener. He ended the season with more than 2,000 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns, and was named the league’s MVP that season.

A running back winning the MVP is a rare accomplishment in itself, but it is even more impressive considering Peterson was less than a year removed from his torn ACL. Dr. James Andrews operated on Peterson’s knee just six days after the injury, which helped Peterson recover quickly and be ready for the following season.