Getting Student Athletes Back in the Game After ACL Tears

For Ilijah Doucet, 17, football has been his sport of choice for over 10 years. Growing up, he played in outside leagues until middle school and high school, where he landed a spot on the Terry High School football team, playing running back, receiver and cornerback.  His game plan changed when he tore his ACL in 2016. Such injuries are on the rise among young athletes.

More kids are participating in competitive leagues and spending less time playing casual games with neighborhood friends.  Fitness experts are noticing an increase in kids who choose to focus on one sport throughout the entire year versus being active in several types of sports.

Such specialization in one sport is one indirect reason that physician specialists like Dr. Terrence Anderson, pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Memorial Hermann Sugar Land Hospital, believe anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears in young athletes are becoming more common. “When any athlete focuses their attention on one sport they can become subject to minor injuries and those smaller injuries increase the risk of larger injuries such as the ACL and meniscus tears,” said Dr. Anderson.

The ACL keeps the knee stable and connects the upper leg bone with the lower leg bone. When the knee joint is bent backward, twisted or bent side to side or, a combination of movements at the same time, an ACL injury can occur. “In sports such as football and soccer, players have to make sudden quick movements to change directions, slowing down when running or landing from a jump,” said Dr. Anderson.

During practice warm-ups in December 2016, Doucet’s knee gave out. For the next several weeks, he pushed through the pain until he finally gave in to his mother’s advice of going to see a doctor. It was on his first visit with Dr. Anderson that it was discovered he had a tear in his ACL and meniscus. “I was upset I wasn’t going to get to finish the season but I was determined to successfully get through surgery and rehab to get back to playing,” said Doucet.

On February 9, his 17th birthday, Doucet went into surgery with Dr. Anderson to repair his ACL and meniscus tears.

Recently published research in the journal Pediatrics, identified an increase in the incidence of ACL tears in pediatric patients over the last 20 years. Majority of the injuries occurred in high school aged youth. Year over year, during a 20-year period researchers found a 2.3 percent in annual ACL tears in patients ages 6 to 18. “A number of kids are unfortunately getting these serious injuries during their freshman and sophomore year of high school,” said Anderson. “This is a critical time for a lot of athletes hoping to play sports in college and doesn’t give some athletes enough time to fully recover.”

With some pediatric patients, it is challenging doing a traditional reconstruction because some patients still have open growth plates and are still growing.

There are a number of ways Dr. Anderson believes can decrease the risk of a season-ending injury. Free play by alternating between competitive sports and non-competitive which can reduce pressure to play through fatigue and pain. He also recommends against specializing in one sport too early in youth.  “Educating young sports players on the proper way to land after a jump or safely change directions during preseason training can help prevent or reduce injuries,” added Dr. Anderson. “It’s also important that players are reminded to be honest about being in pain during a game.”

Doucet recently finished his rehab at the Memorial Hermann IRONMAN Sports Medicine Institute – Sugar Land. He’s been working hard to complete his rehab and surprised Dr. Anderson with doing a squat exercise, four months after his surgery. “I’m very pleased with his treatment and recovery,” said Charlotte Doucet, Ilijah’s mother. “I know his goal is to get back to playing and he has stayed positive throughout this entire journey.”

“I love everything about playing football, from the friends I’ve made, to game nights and even practice sessions,” said Doucet.

As high school football season kicks off, Ilijah is ready to put back on his cleats and practice with the team. For now, he’s unable to participate in contact sports but can join the team at practice wearing his knee brace. Dr. Anderson and school trainers will continue to monitor his progress until he is allowed to suit up fully and get back to playing the game he loves.

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Tashika Varma