How often do ACL tears happen to athletes?

How’s your fantasy football team doing? Lost any star players to an anterior cruciate ligament or ACL tear? St. Louis Rams quarterback Sam Bradford is out for a tear in his left knee for the second season in a row. Stephen Tulloch, a linebacker for the Detroit Lions, went down in week three with an ACL tear in his left knee.

ACL tears are common in football players and in professional, amateur and youth athletes in other contact sports with more than 250,000 occurring each year. An ACL tear is a season-ending injury, but does it signal the end of an athlete’s career? Not necessarily.

ACL tears affect 250,000 athletes each year Click To Tweet

So how often do athletes with ACL tears return to the sport they love? Dr. Joshua Harris, a Houston Methodist orthopedic surgeon, sought out to find just that. He matched athletes with ACL tears in the National Football League, National Basketball Association, National Hockey League, Major League Soccer and the X Games to athletes without tears based on age, experience and pre-tear performance.

“In addition to determining how often these athletes are able to return to sport after an ACL tear, our studies also revealed interesting patterns in ACL tears,” Dr. Harris said. “For example, we were able to determine which NBA playing positions had a harder time recovering and which knee was more susceptible to ACL tears in MLS players.”

National Hockey League

Athletes in the NHL had a return to sport rate of 97 percent – the highest rate of all major sports leagues. Left-handed shooters are more likely to tear their ACL, but all performed better after returning to the ice.

National Football League

Because the rates of ACL tears in the NFL are so high and specific offensive and defensive positions are unique in their cutting and pivoting demands on the knee, Dr. Harris and his team decided to narrow their research for this study to quarterbacks. The researchers found quarterbacks have a return to sport rate of 92 percent and, on average, played for five years after returning from an ACL tear, which proved ACL tears are not career-ending injuries for quarterbacks.

 

National Basketball Association

Dr. Harris found that 62 percent of ACL tears in the NBA occur in the second half, mostly in the fourth quarter of the game, possibly due to fatigue. Overall, NBA athletes have a high return to sport rate of 86 percent. Guards have the most difficult time returning to sport, while centers have the most predictable outcomes.

Major League Soccer

While most injuries in Major League Soccer athletes are non-contact injuries, these players tend to have more ACL tears in their left knee and have a 77 percent chance of returning to the field after an ACL tear.

“Because of the cutting and pivoting nature of soccer, MLS players may have more ACL tears in the leg they plant with,” Dr. Harris said. “The majority of soccer players kick with their right and plant with their left, which may explain why they tend to have more ACL tears in their left knee.”

X Games

Dr. Harris and his team looked specifically at skiers and snowboarders. Skiers tend to have more tears in their left knee and had an 87 percent chance of returning to their sport. Snowboarders had a 70 percent return to sport rate and won more medals after recovering from an ACL tear.

“This injury can happen to anyone,” Dr. Harris explained. “Researching ACL tears in athletes helps all of our patients because we are able to evaluate treatments and bring the best solutions back to our practice.”

Hannah Pietsch

Hannah Pietsch

Media relations coordinator at Houston Methodist
Hannah Farr Pietsch is originally from Stamping Ground, Kentucky. She now lives in Katy with her husband, Don. She is an avid University of Kentucky Wildcats and Houston Texans fan who is on a quest to find the best Vietnamese food in Houston.
Hannah Pietsch

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Hannah Pietsch

Hannah Farr Pietsch is originally from Stamping Ground, Kentucky. She now lives in Katy with her husband, Don. She is an avid University of Kentucky Wildcats and Houston Texans fan who is on a quest to find the best Vietnamese food in Houston.