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Knee Injuries on the Rise in Young Athletes

Study: More Children and Teens Being Treated for ACL, Meniscus Tears, Other Sports-Related Knee Injuries
By Cari Nierenberg
WebMD Health News
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

mri of childs knee

Oct. 17, 2011 -- Young athletes' knees get plenty of wear and tear, and now new research is shedding light on how often this frequently used joint gets injured.

Researchers from The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia found a more than 400% jump in knee injuries in young people treated at this large urban medical center between 1999 and 2011. Their findings offer a glimpse at just how many kids' legs might be getting hurt when playing sports.

The study was presented at the 2011 Meeting of the American Academy of Pediatrics in Boston.

After reviewing patient billing records, sports medicine experts noticed an overall rise in the number of cases of three common knee injuries during this 12-year period.

The number of young people diagnosed with a torn meniscus (also referred to as "torn cartilage") increased by an average of 14 injuries per year. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears rose by 11 cases a year. Tibial spine fractures had a more modest growth of one injury a year.

A meniscus helps cushion the knee and might tear when athletes twist, turn, slow down, or get tackled. The ACL is one of the knee's major ligaments. It can rip when quickly changing directions, landing a jump, or slowing down from running.

Weak in the Knees

It's unclear exactly why sports-related knee injuries are occurring more often in children and teens.

"The high-level, year-round, young-age specialized (sports) competition," may be one reason for the increase, study researcher J. Todd Lawrence, MD, says in a news release.

Researchers suspect that more youth sports participation, better diagnostic methods, earlier doctor referral, and more aggressive treatment also play a role.

When active kids have ACL or meniscus tears, it may have a greater impact on their health than the same injuries in adults. Repairing these problems can be complex and the recovery can be lengthy during a time when youngsters are still growing.

Once they feel better, young athletes may be eager to get back to their sport and play with the same intensity. This may increase their chances of getting hurt again.

"While we are never going to prevent all injuries, there is good evidence, particularly from soccer, that sports-injury prevention programs can go a long way toward reducing them," says Lawrence, an orthopaedic surgeon at The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

This study was presented at a medical conference. The findings should be considered preliminary as they have not yet undergone the "peer review" process, in which outside experts scrutinize the data prior to publication in a medical journal.

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