By Briana Vannozzi
Dr. Sean McMillan checks the strength in patient Liz Ford’s knee. Liz is one of a growing number of young athletes to undergo surgery after a sports injury.
“My freshman year of college I tore my ACL and PCL on my left knee,” she said.
“We see it a little more in females than males, but the more people start to specialize in one sport we’re seeing it across the board,” Dr. McMillan said.
New research presented at an orthopedic sports medicine conference finds that teen athletes who have knee or leg surgery during high school are at a higher risk for more surgery if they play in college. Dr. McMillan says it’s the most common type of injury treated at his Lourdes Health System practice.
“You think about athletes tearing their ACL’s when they’re 17 to 18 years old. We’re seeing 12- to 13-year-olds. And again it has to do with that year-round sports getting involved early, which is a great thing for their health, but unfortunately their muscles aren’t developed enough and that’s when we see that injury occur,” he said.
“I definitely see it with other people my age with other sports like soccer and lacrosse is a big one I see it with,” Ford said.
Overuse is the number one driver behind the data. More students are electing to drop seasonal sports to hone their skills on just one, year round. The problem with that?
“If you use the same muscles over and over again, what happens is muscle memory builds up so when you’re called upon to do something different you don’t necessarily have that appropriate perception or that ability to know where you are in space to use those muscles and that’s where injuries tend to happen,” Dr. McMillan said.
So Dr. McMillan runs clinics and camps at schools throughout Burlington County to identify kids who may be at risk.
“We’ll actually put our athletes through different agility drills and look to see how they’re landing, running jumping and pivoting. If we can isolate students prone to an ACL injury, we can retrain their muscles ahead of time to cut down that risk,” he said.
Separate research presented at that same conference found that teens account for the majority of elbow or Tommy John surgeries commonly found among pitchers. Fifteen- to 19-year-olds made up more than 56 percent of all the surgeries in their data.
“What we’re finding again anything we can do to get our pitchers and young baseball players to cross train, maybe play lacrosse or basketball, is better off for their bodies,” Dr. McMillan said.
Even after athletes have passed their collegiate sports years and made it successfully through multiple surgeries, they still need to be concerned about predisposition for issues as they age.
“We find that there’s always a bit of arthritis that comes along with an ACL surgery. Our goal is to minimize that arthritis,” Dr. McMillan said.
They do that with early intervention. In the case of the knee, Dr. McMillan and his team will look to save the all important meniscus. Without it the knee is in trouble. They also encourage continued strength training.
“Just because I’m not going to physical therapy didn’t mean that I could just not work on strength and flexibility in my knee. I had to keep that up and I still do it to this day,” Ford said.
Dr. McMillan encourages teen athletes to try a variety of sports. He says a well rounded athlete means well rounded health.