A Super Bowl Dream Deferred? What to Know About ACL Injuries

Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz is out for the rest of the season after tearing his ACL. (Keith Allison / flickr)

In an instant, Philadelphia’s Super Bowl dreams appeared to shatter on the field.

Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz tore the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in his left knee during Sunday’s winning game against the Rams. By Monday morning, Coach Doug Pederson confirmed the inevitable: His team’s star player would miss the rest of the regular and postseason games.

The good news is that his injury is common and certainly not career-ending, says Thomas Trojian, MD, a sports medicine professor at Drexel University College of Medicine and chair of the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance.

However, ACL tears can seriously impact an athlete’s health and well-being. Below, Trojian discusses Wentz’s prognosis and how athletes can avoid a similar injury.

What is an ACL?
An ACL is a ligament that keeps the knee stable. It is important for cutting and twisting in sports, because it stops the shin bone from shifting forward on the femur.

How are ACL injuries treated?
ACL reconstruction surgery is used to give people a stable feeling in the knee. For a quarterback like Carson Wentz, this is important so that his knee doesn’t feel like it’s wobbling while he is running and cutting during a game. For non-professional athletes, or athletes like swimmers or cyclists who are not doing these types of motions, ACL surgery is not always necessary.

How will this injury affect Wentz’s performance going forward? Will his mobility be permanently limited, or is it something he can fully recover from?
With surgery and proper rehabilitation, he has over a 70 percent chance of coming back totally normal with full mobility. Rehabilitation after surgery usually takes from six months to a year, barring complications. You do have quarterbacks who come back early after ACL reconstruction surgery, but they run into problems later. Jerry Rice returned to the game less than four months after his injury, and had a problem with the repair site later on. That’s the difficulty of trying to make that turnaround. You can run into more difficulties and risk further damage to other tissues.

But also, complications can happen, even with the very best surgeons and proper rehab. Tom Brady, for example, developed an infection following his knee surgery and needed additional procedures. And with or without surgery, about a third to half of people who have an ACL tear will suffer from osteoarthritis. That’s why the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance is really focused on ACL injury awareness and prevention.

How can ACL injuries be prevented?
The majority of ACL injuries in sports are non-contact injuries that happen after a poor landing technique. One classic instance of this in football is a defensive end who falls backwards and lands on the back of one foot. But these types of injuries are also extremely common in non-professional sports, like youth soccer and basketball. My research and the Osteoarthritis Action Alliance are seeking to understand the biomechanics of landing, as well as how factors like individuals’ hip and leg strength contribute to injury. We have found that programs that train coaches and players about proper landing techniques and strengthening exercises really do reduce the number of ACL injuries.

For media inquiries, contact Lauren Ingeno at lmi28@drexel.edu or 215.895.2614.