ACL Tear Won't Keep Most College Athletes From Returning to Play: Study

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FRIDAY, Sept. 26, 2014 (HealthDay News) -- It's a debilitating injury, but an ACL tear typically doesn't mean the end of a college athlete's career, a new study finds.

The research suggests that the risk for a reinjury of the knee's anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) actually goes down as athletes mature from high school into their college years.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina report that most of the college players in the study returned to their sport after surgery to repair an ACL tear.

However, college athletes who had suffered an ACL injury in their pre-college years were much more likely to suffer recurrent ACL trouble, compared to those who had their first such injury in college.

The study included 89 male and female UNC athletes who'd undergone an ACL surgery, either prior to entering college or while they were collegiate athletes. Fifty-four of the patients had surgery during college, while 39 had the surgery before college.

Both groups had nearly identical return-to-play rates -- the pre-college group used 78 percent of their total playing eligibility after injury, while the college group used 77 percent.

However, there were significant differences in their rates for ACL reinjury and reoperation.

The pre-college group had about a 17 percent injury rate with their original ACL surgery, and they also had a 20 percent chance of suffering an ACL injury in the other knee, the study found.

In comparison, the rate for the college athletes was about 2 percent and 11 percent, respectively.

The reoperation rate was about 51 percent for the pre-college group and 20 percent for the college group, according to the study published Sept. 24 in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

"It's very clear from our data that the younger the elite athlete, the higher risk for reinjury," lead author Dr. Ganesh Kamath, assistant professor of orthopedics at UNC's School of Medicine, said in a university news release.

"It's clear that these kids are going to get back to playing sports at a higher level, but there is something in their makeup that puts them at high risk for tearing the ACL in the same or the other knee again. Once the athlete, though, gets past adolescence, this risk seems to go way down," Kamath said.

More information

The U.S. National Library of Medicine has more about anterior cruciate ligament injury.