Staying Safe in an Injury-Prone Sport

The NBC Connecticut Troubleshooters investigate why females are more likely to suffer an ACL tear, and how to prevent injury. (Published Tuesday, Jul 8, 2014)

Research shows female soccer players are 2-8 times more likely to tear their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) than their male counterparts, making women’s soccer the most ACL injury-prone sport.

“When girls are going through their growth spurt, you know, 14-15 [years old], their muscle mass doesn’t keep up with their bone growth and they can’t stabilize as well,” said physical therapist Theresa Hasselrot.

She added that girls’ hips are not strong enough to stabilize their supporting body over their legs.

“Their body tries to compensate by going in that direction,” said Hasselrot. “And their knee further caves inward and there it goes.”

Hasselrot works in New Canaan. One of her patients, Jayne Maccio, tore her ACL nine months ago. Maccio had to train her body how to run again, and has just started training a few weeks ago. She steered her all her focus to getting to this point, but Maccio remembers last September like it was yesterday.

“I was trying to plant for the ball,” said Maccio. “And I think my foot got stuck in the turf along with someone hitting me.”

Maccio’s knee required surgery, as do almost all athletes suffering from an ACL injury.

University of Connecticut women’s soccer player Julie Hubbard knows firsthand how an ACL tear can affect the daily life. She’s had three.

“When I was 16, I tore it for the first time,” said Hubbard.

She transferred from Penn State to UConn four years ago, yet this season will only be her second year playing. She re-tore her ACL shortly after transferring, and tore it a third time nine months after her second surgery. Doctors had just cleared her to play.

“I went through the process twice more,” said Hubbard. “It’s a shame that women’s bodies are more prone to ACL tears than their counterpart.”

Despite being more prone, players can diminish ACL injuries significantly with a few preventative measures.

Hasselrot pointed out the first step in prevention is recognizing when players with a higher risk of injuring their ACL. High-risk athletes include girls ages 14-18, especially those who play pounding sports such as soccer and basketball.

People whose feet pronate, where the arches collapse in, also have a higher risk. To help fix that, she tells her patients to focus on strengthening their hamstrings and landing on the balls of their feet, instead of on their whole foot.

“And then doing plyometrics,” said Hasselrot. “That puts their muscle in a stretch and makes it respond really quickly so they can change quickly.”

She adds girls who tear their ACL once are up to eight percent more likely to tear it again. The long-term effects can last a lifetime.

“If they continue to do cutting sports or running for marathons and stuff, eventually it would lead to a knee replacement,” said Hasselrot.

For now, that’s a risk Maccio is willing to take.

“I can’t straighten my leg completely anymore,” said Maccio. “But you know, that’s just something you learn to live with.”

Maccio finds comfort in knowing several players at the highest level have had to go through exactly what she’s going through. Take U.S. Women’s National Team defender, Ali Krieger.

Krieger recently played in East Hartford, but suffered an ACL tear back in 2012. She was able to come back and start for arguably the most talented team in the world. It took her almost a year to get back in shape, so Krieger knows recovering from the injury comes with a price.

“I would have really difficult times and really difficult days and would think to myself, ‘Is this worth it?’” said Krieger.

For her, it was. But so many youth soccer players see Krieger and think if she can do it, they can do it, too.

“When you’re a kid you think you’re invincible,” said Hubbard. “But as you get older, you realize this is going to be my body for the rest of my life. These are my legs and I want them to carry me for many more years.”