A Closer Look at Injuries

Modern medical procedures have allowed athletes across various sports and positions to return to the game, with as little downtime as possible.

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Game Six of the 2019 NBA Finals. Stephen Curry got a steal from Kyle Lowry. Curry started the fast break and made a quick pass to Klay Thompson. As Thompson went up for a dunk, he landed awkwardly, with one of his legs taking all the impact of the fall. He immediately grabbed his knee in pain as his teammate Curry watched him from across the court. Thompson had endured a devastating ACL tear, and he was ruled out for the remainder of the 2019 season and the first half of the 2020 NBA season.

Once upon a time, tearing the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in one’s knee could be career-ending. The ACL is a finger-sized ligament that stabilizes the knee; more specifically, it connects the bottom of the femur to the top of the tibia. By doing so, it helps athletes balance and change direction on their knees, which is essential for sports such as basketball or football. However, if a player were to change direction (whether by themselves or by someone tackling them) with enough momentum, their knee could twist abnormally. This would cause the ACL to give way and tear. Tearing an ACL causes extreme pain, a “pop” sound, and internal bleeding in the knee joint.

In 1975, NBA legend Billy Cunningham tore his ACL and never played again. In 1999, NFL running back Terrell Davis also tore his ACL. He had just won a Super Bowl two years prior and was at the absolute peak of his career. Following microscopic surgery in 1999, he was never the same and retired shortly after in 2002.

However, with advancements in surgery and sports medicine, recovery from an ACL tear is much more successful. Adrian Peterson is one example of this. Peterson took an aggressive approach toward recovery from his torn ACL. Typically, athletes will wait until the knee joint is completely swollen and internal bleeding stops to begin surgery, but this was not the case for Peterson. He pursued reconstructive surgery just six days after his injury, as he replaced his torn ligament with a graft of the patellar tendon in his knee, keeping it attached with screws. This graft was a revolutionary development in the late 1980s, and it allowed athletes such as Peterson to return to the game. Peterson in particular came back better than ever, rushing for an incredible 2,097 yards, the second most in NFL history. For his efforts, Peterson won both the Most Valuable Player and the Comeback Player of the Year awards.

Like Peterson, Thompson immediately underwent ACL reconstruction surgery after his injury. In just seven months after his surgery, Thompson has been cleared for light practice on the court once more, participating in shootarounds with the Warriors. Warriors coach Steve Kerr says that “It just feels good to see him out there on the floor, and to see him feel like he’s getting closer.” With today’s advancements in medical technology, fans can expect Thompson to return by next season fully recovered and ready to lead the young Golden State Warriors team.

Long ago, baseball pitchers who tore the ulnar collateral ligament (UCL) in their elbow feared they would never return to baseball again. However, with the advancement of Tommy John surgery, that is no longer the case. Tommy John surgery involves taking a tendon from another part of the body or a donor and replacing the original, torn UCL in the elbow. Its namesake, pitcher Tommy John, was the first to undergo it in 1974. The surgery was thought to have a one-in-100 chance of being successful, but miraculously it worked, and John’s career continued. Today, Tommy John surgery has an 80 to 90 percent success rate and a recovery rate of nine to 12 months. Some MLB pitchers even report having better performance after the surgery than before.

Modern medical procedures have allowed athletes across various sports and positions to return to the game, with as little downtime as possible.