New Type of Knee Injury Plaguing Kids

Kids who play sports are increasingly suffering injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the main stabilizing ligament in the knee.  As recently as a decade ago, these injuries were practically unheard of among children, who instead were notorious for fracturing the knee bone called the tibial spine--this latter bone is easy to fracture while the skeleton is still growing.

From 1999 until 2011, ACL tears increased by an average of 11 percent per year.

Why? Scientists still aren't sure, and that question was outside the scope of the current analysis. But Dr. Lawrence, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon who treats many of the afflicted young athletes, is willing to speculate. "I think it's primarily because kids are out there trying to emulate professional athletes," he says. "You see these very young athletes playing sports at an extremely intense, competitive level. Kids didn't play at that level 20 years ago. They didn't play one sport year-round." As a consequence, their knees never had to withstand the kinds of repeated twists, sprints, loads and hard hits that young players now regularly absorb, he says.

"A lot of what we see in our injury data is almost certainly due to a statistical measure called exposure hours," Dr. Lawrence says. "The more you do a risky activity at a high level, the more likely you are to get hurt." His advice? "Encourage kids to play multiple sports and not to do any one sport year-round, and especially not when they're 5 or 6, or even 9 or 10. They're kids. Let them play and have fun, like kids."

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