July 11, 2019

Stretch goals: Preventing ACL injury for teen athletes

A Kaiser Permanente expert offers 3 tips to help teens avoid this devastating injury.

An ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, injury ends an athlete’s season — and often the next one. The surgery and recovery needed to fully restore a torn ACL can sideline a student athlete for 9 months to a year minimum. And it isn’t just the inability to play a sport that can create difficulties. Many injured teen athletes experience profound changes in their social and community structures that can be psychologically and physically challenging.

ACL injury risk is greatest for young women in their teens, who are up to 5 times more likely to tear their ACL than their male counterparts. However, a simple preventive exercise regimen (15 minutes a day, 4 times a week) can help lower the risk of non-contact ACL tears for athletes and avoid prolonged rehabilitation and absence from sports. ACL exercise programs, such as those offered by Kaiser Permanente, help teen athletes strengthen muscles and improve balance and coordination to minimize their risk of injury.

It isn’t always easy to get a busy teenager to follow an exercise program correctly and consistently. Todd Weitzenberg, MD, a sports medicine specialist at Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center in Northern California, offers the following tips for getting a teen athlete on board with prevention:

Focus on performance: Parents and coaches get fired up about injury prevention, but even the most dedicated teenager is rarely moved to action by talk of decreasing future risk. Luckily, research has shown that the same exercises that help prevent injury also improve athletic performance. Teens are most likely to embrace the program when they understand it is about improving their athletic performance, not just about stopping injury.

Make it a team effort: The athlete and everyone around her needs to be on board with the importance of ACL injury prevention. School and club coaches should integrate preventive exercises into practice and game schedules — from pre-season through the final match. Exercises can be performed to warm up before taking the field or hitting the court, as well as to cool down at the end of a practice or game.

Check the replay: Does your teen know the right way to complete a lunge or squat? Having the correct alignment, balance, and positioning are critical to effectively and safely performing the exercises. Video-based exercise programs help ensure a teen athlete is doing the exercises correctly and can be easily viewed on a mobile phone at the gym or on the beach. 

Video-based exercises can also go beyond ACL prevention to address other common issues for teen athletes. Kaiser Permanente’s Online Physical Therapy program complements in-person care with customized, video-based home exercise programs that address a member’s specific health needs. Used by more than 100,000 patients and 4,200 physicians and clinicians across Kaiser Permanente, the program helps teen athletes and members of all ages conveniently and effectively manage concerns such as back and hip pain, shoulder discomfort, and ankle sprains.

Ultimately, whether on the field at practice or at home during a study break, preventing injury is a matter of creating good habits. With support from families and coaches and a focus on reward instead of risk, teens are more likely to stick to an exercise program that will help them play at the top of their game.