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Study: Teen Athletes See Rise in ACL Knee Surgeries

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The number of teen athletes who have knee surgery to reconstruct a torn anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is on the rise, and girls have seen the sharpest increase. Researchers from the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill say the results are concerning and point to the need for better injury prevention among high school and youth athletic teams.The research comes from a collaboration between the UNC School of Medicine, the UNC Gillings School of Public Health and the Injury Prevention Research Center. Researchers analyzed insurance claims of nearly 150 million Americans to study how many were having ACL reconstruction surgery. 

Lead Researcher Mackenzie Herzog says it's long been known that teen girls carry a high risk, but the sharp rise in surgeries in recent years was still a surprise. The number of surgeries among teen girls rose 59 percent over the past 13 years. Girls also had more overall surgeries than boys.

"There was anecdotal evidence that females that were 13 to 17 years old have had increases in ACL reconstruction, but this was the first time that we really put numbers behind that increase," Herzog said.

Herzog says it's not fully understood why girls are at a higher risk, but the rise of injuries and surgeries may be attributed to more girls playing high-intensity sports like basketball and soccer.

Researchers warn a torn ACL may lead to other knee problems later in life, and prevention is the best antidote.

"Recent studies have shown that post-traumatic osteoarthritis -- osteoarthritis that develops after you tear your ACL -- can occur as soon as ten years after the injury," Herzog said. Girls also have higher rates of re-tears and tears in both knees.

There are proven ACL injury prevention programs available, but they aren't being widely adopted by sports teams, according to Herzog.

"So we really need parents of young women, and athletes themselves -- especially those who play basketball and soccer -- to strongly encourage their coaches and their organizations to incorporate an evidence-based ACL injury prevention program into their training."

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Reporter, covering preschool through higher education. Email:
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