The average active American has been taught to believe that if they injure their ACL, they can get a “new one” installed and get back to sports at a high level. While research continues to show this isn’t true, many would point to NFL players as a case in point. Their favorite athletes chose to have the surgery – hence it must be the best possible option. Now a new study shatters that illusion as well – when these guys injure their ACL and undergo surgery – they’re never quite the same.
The ACL-Getting Torn and Reconstructed
The ACL is a strong band that’s housed inside the knee joint. It connects to the femur and the tibia and stabilizes the tibia in rotation, and together with the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), it forms the front-back stabilization of the knee joint. ACL tears are common in NFL players and other athletes due to the intense forces placed on the knee or due to awkward shifts or hits. NFL ACL Surgery is generally reconstruction of the ligament, but there are many reasons it may not be the best solution, and I’ll start with the recent study.
ACLR Leads to Fewer Games and Decreased Performance
A recent study looked at a variety of orthopedic-surgery outcomes in 559 athletes. It should be concerning enough that only 79.4% of NFL athletes as a whole returned to the game following their orthopedic procedure, but authors also highlighted specific procedures of concern, and ACLR is one of those. Authors said, “Athletes undergoing ACL reconstruction (ACLR)…had significant declines in games played at 1 year and recovered to baseline at 2 to 3 years after surgery. Athletes undergoing ACLR…had decreased performance in postoperative season 1.” They go on to say that subjects undergoing ACLR “demonstrated sustained decreases in performance.”
So with the most common NFL ACL surgery, if NFL athletes are even able to return to play after an ACLR, not only are they playing fewer games for up to two to three years following surgery, but they are also experiencing poorer performance that progressively declines. With this sustained decrease in performance and decrease in the number of games played, the study concluded that ACLR surgery can affect career length in NFL players.
ACLR: The Inherent Problems of NFL ACL Surgery
The pitfalls of ACL reconstruction, particularly those in NFL players and other professional athletes, who rely on proper ACL function for career longevity, don’t stop there, and they aren’t new to this blog; I’ve covered many in the past. You can dig deeper into why performance suffers, and why the knee is never quite the same, following an ACLR at the links below:
- The grafts used in ACLR are installed at a steeper angle, making the resulting ligament nowhere close to the original ACL.
- A new injury to the other knee or a reinjury to the operated-on knee is six times more likely following ACL reconstruction.
- ACL reconstruction doesn’t prevent knee arthritis and may, in fact, accelerate it.
- Eight months following ACLR, less than 1 in 5 athletes are ready to return to play.
- While many professional athletes believe ACL reconstruction will lengthen their career, it actually shortens it.
- ACL surgery can leave the knee joint rotationally unstable.
- After an ACL reconstruction, performance suffers due to a loss of normal position sense in the knee.
The upshot? NFL players not only rely on the proper functioning of the ACL and other parts of their musculoskeletal system to keep their career long and thriving, they also work hard to stay healthy and steer clear of surgery. Most players understand that surgery—any kind of surgery—is bad news and not ideal. Between lengthy recovery times and the fact that the new structure or new part is unlikely to work like the original, it’s nearly impossible to get 100% back to where you were before surgery. Despite the fact that it’s the most common NFL ACL surgery being performed, this new study just adds to many others showing that what we believe – that ACLR is a sure thing fix like getting a blown tire replaced on your car – simply isn’t real.