By: The Age Newspaper, Aisha Dow
John Roumeliotis’ promising football career was almost over before it had begun.
At 18 years old, the Epworth teenager had already suffered three crippling injuries to his anterior cruciate ligament, commonly known as the ACL.
The third time, he hadn’t even returned to playing when he snapped his ACL jumping for a mark at training two days before he was due to step back on the field in his comeback game.
“I thought it was all over,” said the Calder Cannons player, who is still hopeful of playing in the AFL.
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself. I was devastated.”
These stories are not unusual. Every day on fields and courts across the country, sporting heartbreaks like this are being repeated.
New research has revealed Australia has the highest rates of ACL reconstructions in the world, and they are being reported in younger and younger athletes, some as young as seven or eight.
It is not yet clear what is causing the growing rates of ACL damage but leading knee surgeon Christopher Vertullo speculated it could be partly caused by a lack of “free play” in a generation of children often glued to electronic devices.
Early specialisation in individual sports could also be to blame, he suggested.
Associate Professor Vertullo, the director of Knee Research Australia, said that when he began practising about 16 years ago, he rarely had to treat patients aged under 15, or visit paediatric wards.
“Now every week I have to go there,” he said.
It is a phenomenon that he finds particularly heartbreaking, as many ACL injuries can be prevented with proper agility training, yet cause devastating long-term effects, including future knee reconstructions and debilitating pain through osteoarthritis.
His suspicions of an “epidemic” of ACL injuries was recently confirmed by a study he led that found there were almost 200,000 ACL reconstructions preformed in Australia in the 15 years to 2015.
Over the same period, the number of reconstructions jumped by 74 per cent in those under 25.
But the biggest increase was seen in children aged five to 14, where the annual growth in ACL injuries was 8.8 per cent for girls and 7.7 per cent for boys.
Research out of La Trobe University in Melbourne has also identified a trend of repeat injuries in young people who undergo ACL surgery. In the 128 young people they studied who had undergone two surgeries, almost 30 per cent went on to have a third ACL injury.
The paper suggested that young people who sustained multiple ACL injuries may have to be counselled to switch to lower-risk sports.
”We feel [like the rate of repeat injuries] is too high and it is certainly concerning for their future knee health,” said lead researcher Associate Professor Kate Webster.
With the cost of ACL surgery in Australia estimated to come to $142 million each year, Associate Professor Vertullo is calling for a national prevention program to be established to teach volunteer coaches to introduce effective warm-up techniques.
“As soon as you implement it, it pays for itself,” he said.
The program is estimated to cost $2 million or $3 million, and would be delivered via an app.