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May 2013

Children Can Suffer ACL Injuries, Too

Parents of young athletes may expect the occasional bruise, scrape, or pulled muscle. But an injury to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) may seem a more likely concern for a professional running back or a slam-dunking hoop star. Yet millions of children every year suffer serious sports injuries, including torn ACLs.

Photo of teens on outdoor basketball court

The ABCs of the ACL

A ligament is stiff fibrous tissue that holds bones together. The ACL is one of four ligaments in the knee. It connects the thigh and shin bones. It helps stabilize the knee, keeping it in place while you move.

Stretching the ACL or other ligaments too much can result in a partial or complete tear. Children may injure their ACL if they change direction quickly or land awkwardly after jumping. Blows to the knee area can also harm the ACL. Athletes who play basketball, soccer, and football are most at risk for an ACL injury.

Tearing an ACL can cause sudden pain. Your child may also recall hearing a popping noise and then feeling weakness in the knee. Other symptoms include swelling, discomfort, and limited movement. If you suspect your child may have injured an ACL, see a doctor immediately to avoid further damage.

Care for ACL injuries

To diagnose an ACL injury, your child's doctor will gently feel the knee and test it for range of motion and stability. He or she may also recommend an MRI test. An MRI provides detailed images of the knee's internal structure, showing the extent of the injury.

An ACL tear will not heal by itself. In general, ACL injuries are treated with physical therapy, limits on activity, a brace for added stability, or surgery. Treatment depends on your child's age and activity level. Children who want to return to sports will likely need surgery.

If your child isn't finished growing yet, surgery may raise your child's risk for bone growth problems. Experts are developing new techniques to avoid such outcomes. Talk with your child's doctor about all the benefits and risks of surgery. Keep in mind: Some studies have found that significantly delaying surgery may further damage the knee.

After surgery, your child will need physical therapy. Rehabilitation helps restore motion and strength to the knee. Many children recover within six months.

Always talk with your health care provider to find out more information.

Preventing Sports Injuries

Not all sports injuries-including those involving the ACL-can be prevented. But you can reduce your child's risk:

  • Make sure your child has a physical exam before joining a sports team. A physical can determine if your child is able to safely meet the sport's demands.

  • Enroll your child in organized sports groups that demonstrate a commitment to injury prevention. Check if they teach children how to properly pivot or land after jumping. That can help your child avoid an ACL injury. So, too, can strength training exercises for the knee.

  • Ensure that your child uses the appropriate safety gear-for example, helmets for football, shin guards for soccer, and good-fitting athletic shoes.

  • Make sure your child warms up and cools down before and after practices and games. Doing so can reduce the risk for muscle strains and pulls.

This video explains more about ACL injuries.

Online Resources

American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine - Stop Sports Injuries

National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases

 

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