It's snowing in the mountains, and for many that means it's time to hit the slopes. For others, it means basketball season is finally getting under way.
Whatever your sport, it's a good time to consider your knees and take steps to keep them healthy. Basketball and skiing can be especially hard on your knees, being some of the leading sports that lead to anterior cruciate ligament injuries.
According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, there are more than 200,000 ACL injuries each year with about 50 percent occurring in combination with damage to the meniscus, articular cartilage or other ligaments in the knee.
An upcoming, free training program offered by Providence St. Mary Medical Center and the YMCA can help keep you from joining the ranks of the injured, however.
ACL injuries are one of the most common sports injuries seen by Tim Conley, a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer at Providence St. Mary Outpatient Rehabilitation and an athletic trainer for DeSales Catholic High School.
"I've seen hundreds," he said, "absolutely hundreds."
An ACL injury is a tear to a ligament in the knee that connects the upper leg bone, or femur, to a lower leg bone, the tibia. It prevents the tibia from slipping too far forward and provides rotational stability to the knee.
Injuries can be mild, such as a small tear, or severe, requiring reconstructive surgery. Damage to this ligament greatly compromises the stability of the knee, and if not treated can lead to osteoarthritis.
An ACL injury can happen to anyone, but it frequently occurs during sports.
It can happen when your foot is firmly planted on the ground and another player or object suddenly hits your knee. But more than 70 percent of ACL injuries happen through non-contact means such as cutting, pivoting, rapidly slowing down, or landing from a jump. Sports such as basketball, soccer, volleyball and skiing are high risk for ACL injuries.
"Females seem to be at a much greater risk for ACL tears," says Mark McComas, physical therapist at Providence St. Mary Outpatient Rehabilitation.
"Research shows them to be four to eight times more likely to sustain an ACL injury than their male counterparts in the same sport. This is due to many possible factors including wider hips, smaller notch in the knee, hormones causing increased laxity, weak hamstrings and the tendency to hyperextend the knees."
A lot of research has been done to explore the causes and risk factors of ACL injuries, and through these studies researchers have developed exercise programs and trainings that can significantly lower the risk of ACL tears.
This has been a major area of interest for Conley. "I was seeing so many ACLs that I became really interested in researching it."
Conley studied and trained at the University of Puget Sound, then worked as a physical therapist and certified athletic trainer at Good Samaritan Hospital in Puyallup, was head athletic trainer for the Goodwill Games, and is now working at Providence St. Mary.
"I was interested in preventing ACL injuries because I know how hard they are to rehab," he says.
He started doing a prevention program at DeSales modeled after the Cincinnati Sportsmetrics program, using plyometrics and agility drills to build and maintain the stability of the knee.
"We've had tremendous success with the prevention," Conley said. "We used to see one to two ACL injuries every year, but since starting prevention we've only seen four ACL's in the last ten years, with three of these in one year."
With such great success in prevention, Conley is eager help others prevent ACL injuries as well.
The YMCA is partnering with Providence St. Mary to offer a free ACL injury screening and prevention program. It begins Dec. 19 with a screening from 9 to 11 a.m., followed by prevention training Dec. 20, 21 and 22 from 9 to 10 a.m. You can register at the YMCA front desk or wwymca.org/program-registration (click "register online").
The event is free and open to anyone who wishes to attend.
Parents and coaches are highly encouraged to come with their athletes and learn more about ACL injury prevention and the Sportsmetrics Warm-up for Injury Prevention and Performance program that will be introduced.
The WIPP program is free and can also be found on the Sportsmetrics website, sportsmetrics.org.
So enjoy your sports this season by keeping your knees healthy. As Conley says, "It's a lot easier to prevent an ACL injury than to rehab one."
Suzy Strickler, who has a bachelor of science in exercise science from Seattle Pacific University, is an Americops volunteer.