ACL injuries in young athletes

Fatigue is key risk factor in ACL injuries in young athletes

We’re all aware of the dangers of burnout in young athletes, but new research presented by the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine shows has added a new and even more dangerous factor: the increased risk of ACL injuries in young athletes.

We all know the damage an ACL injury can do to a sporting career: the anterior cruciate ligament is an incredibly vital component of the knee, playing a crucial role in the restraining force of the knee. If you’re playing a sport which requires a lot of lateral movement, such as tennis, football and volleyball, an ACL injury can be brutal. What’s more the long recovery period and achingly gradual recovery period from an ACL injury can be hugely demoralising on a young athlete.

Tiredness can kill a career

The research, conducted by researchers at the Henry Ford Health System in Detroit, studied 85 athletes over the course of 15 years in a range of sports – from track and field and basketball to volleyball and soccer. Utilising film of young athletes undergoing vertical and drop jumps, the researchers analysed the ergonomics of the jumping techniques, measured again fatigue levels.

Their conclusion: over half of the athletes who demonstrated over 20% fatigue showed an increased ACL injury risk, with female athletes and those over the age of 15 were more likely to demonstrate fatigued jumping that increased their risk of ACL injury.

Fatigue in young and potentially undisciplined athletes can bring on a lapse in concentration which affects the performance of the fundamentals a particular sport requires and is more than simple tiredness: symptoms of fatigue are similar to those of flu, and can be brought on by illness, depression, joint and muscle pain, stress, overextending, poor sleep, anaemia or a lack of physical activity.

There’s more to a movement than you think

Obviously we can rule out the last symptom, but the pressures endured by young athletes can easily mount up, and can easily play havoc (however momentarily) with the sensorimotor system – which helps us to sense our body position and formulate our next move, be it putting one foot in front of the other, coming to a stop, or – in the case of athletes – performing a series of movements a little bit faster and smoother than the average person. Think carefully about the mechanics of performing a jump: now think about them again. There are more elements involved in the performing a safe jump than you first thought.

While the sample size of the study was a relatively small one, it gives further guidance for coaches and how they should structure training sessions, taking into account the physical and mental state of their young athletes to prevent ACL injuries in young athletes.