Knees, Shoulders and Ankles: The “Forgotten” Football Injuries

With concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) dominating the football headlines, it’s easy to sideline the importance of preventing other football injuries on the field, especially for high school and college athletes looking to carry their love of the sport into a potential career. One bad injury left untreated is all it can take to dash pro ball dreams, so along with state-of-the art helmets and concussion awareness training, student athletes should make sure their team is vigilant about all injuries, including those classified as “traumatic.”

Traumatic Knee Injuries

The most common knee injury in football involves the extreme stretching or tearing of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), often caused by a strong blow to the side of the joint during a tackle. Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) injuries are less common than ACL but just as serious, usually occurring when the tibia is struck with extreme backward force. When torn, the ACL or PCL unravels like a braided rope and will not heal on its own—surgery is required.

A recovery time of 6 to 9 months is also required, which is why preventing ACL and PCL injuries is so crucial—all that lost training and practice can have devastating effects on an athlete’s ability to compete later, even if the injury heals back to 100%.

The best ways to prevent knee injuries is to always jump, land, stop, and move with your knees directly over your feet, and never let your knees collapse inward. Specific injury prevention exercises and drills vary but they share a common focus: improving flexibility, strength (particularly of the core, hips, and legs), balance, agility, and your ability to jump and land safely.

Traumatic Shoulder Injuries

Shoulder injuries in football usually occur from direct contact with another player or the playing surface, and typically result in either a dislocation or separation. A shoulder dislocation is when the humerus ball pops out of the scapular socket, but a separation is much more serious: the ligaments attached to the collarbone partially or completely tear away from the shoulder blade.

Another common shoulder injury is a rotator cuff tear, often the result of overuse and repetitive motion such as throwing a football, but it can also result from a tackling-type contact or a fall. Partial tears can be treated without surgery, but complete tears must be fixed by a surgeon to regain the full range of motion and function.

The first step to preventing shoulder injuries it to wear regulation equipment and padding that fits properly. Practicing proper tackling and blocking techniques is also important, as are strength and conditioning routines that increase flexibility.

Traumatic Ankle Injuries

There are several ways for football players to injury their ankles, although sprains—stretching, twisting or tearing ligaments around the ankle—are the most common. Football players typically sprain their ankles when slowing down or accelerating suddenly, changing direction unexpectedly, or suffering a blow to the joint during a tackle or awkward landing. Fractures are much more serious and often confused with sprains so it’s imperative to seek medical help immediately.

Football players are also at high risk for Achilles tendonitis, which is caused by repeated use and stress to the Achilles tendon—inflammation can lead to degeneration over time if not properly treated. Heel pain in the form of plantar fasciitis (inflammation of the tissue around the heel) is another common injury from spending excessive time on your feet. For younger players (up to age 14), a particular concern is Sever’s disease, which is an inflammation of the heel’s growth plate caused by frequent running or pounding on hard surfaces.

Prevention of ankle injuries often comes down to improperly fitting shoes, but the best way to ensure your ankles stay strong against the demands of football is staying fit and flexible and warming up properly. Balancing exercises are great for honing your body’s “proprioception,” or ability to control itself in all types of positions. Also make sure to use the right technique when running so your weight is evenly distributed, and players can tape or strap up their ankles for extra protection during games and practice.

Traumatic Injuries: Not Necessarily a Dream-Killer

While some injuries such as ACL tears were once thought to be career-enders (or career-preventers for those still in school), medical treatments and surgeries have advanced to the point where players suffering from even the most serious traumatic injuries can recover and play another day. It might take time, and tons of make-up training, but these injuries are no longer the dream-killers they once were—as long as players are vigilant about treatment…and preventing injuries from happening in the first place.

Feature photo: Flickr: micolumnasana (cc license 2.0)