Night or day and no matter what the season, chances are you’ll find UT soccer player, Gabrielle Pauwels, 15, Silvis, IL, on the pitch, playing her favorite sport.
“Soccer keeps me quick on my feet, and I just love playing defense,” she says. Her mother, Megan Pauwels, agrees, “Soccer is Gabrielle’s social life, her favorite sport, and her first love, so losing that would have been very hard for her.”
Gabrielle’s gratitude stems from her strong comeback following a torn ACL in her right knee, an increasingly common injury, especially among young women athletes who play pivot sports like basketball, soccer, or volleyball — sports that demand jumping, twisting, and sudden stops that put added pressure on the knee.
“I was just playing kickball and heard a ‘pop,’” recalls Gabrielle. Subsequent swelling and pain sent her to ORA Orthopedics’ Sports Medicine Center for treatment with fellowship-trained sports medicine physician, Dr. Waqas Hussain, Quad City sports medicine physician, ORA Orthopedics Sports Medicine Center of Excellence.
“Gabrielle’s telltale ‘pop’ and swelling indicated a completely torn ACL,” explains Dr. Hussain (a MRI confirmed the diagnosis). The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is one of the four primary ligaments in the knee. These ligaments control the knee’s back and forth motion. “The treatment for a torn ACL is reconstruction,” says Dr. Hussain. “The first step is reducing the swelling and preparing the knee for surgery.”
Dr. Hussain performs ACL surgery at Crow Valley Surgery Center, a surgical center specializing in orthopedics. The surgery is performed on an outpatient basis and usually takes about 60-90 minutes to complete. “To rebuild Gabrielle’s ACL, I harvested a small part of her own hamstring tissue and built a new ligament. This surgery is minimally invasive and spares surrounding tissue, leading to a quicker recovery and return-to-play,” he explains.
“Patients like Gabrielle are home the same day and walking soon after. Strong physical therapy and exercising usually means athletes can return to their previous activity between 7-12 months. We also make an effort to time the surgery with athletic seasons so that players can be cleared prior to the opening season.”
Every year ORA performs over 200 ACL reconstructions.
Women more prone to ACL injury than men
Following surgery and months of rehabilitative exercise and training, Gabrielle is back playing the game she loves, but she is not alone in her comeback to health. According to NIH Medline Plus, young women are 2 to 8 times more likely than young males to injure their ACLs. In general, young female athletes are more prone to ACL injuries than their male counterparts due to body structure, hormones, and muscular development.
“Young women experience significant changes in adolescence. As they develop a wider pelvis, their knees often point inward to a greater degree. And because women also have less muscular strength than men, the result is greater stress being placed on their ACL. Hormone levels in women can also mean greater laxity, meaning looser knees that may also contribute to increased ACL injury,” he explains.
Dr. Hussain, who completed his sports medicine fellowship training at the Cleveland Clinic and served as assistant team physician for such teams as the Cleveland Browns, Cleveland Indians, and Cleveland Cavaliers, says prevention is the key to protecting knees for all young athletes.
“Athletes, especially female athletes, need to learn how to jump and land correctly. You don’t want knees to buckle inward. We tell all of our patients that following surgery, they should work with a physical therapist so that good habits become second nature. We want athletes to tear it up on the field as they score that goal, not tear up their knees and end promising careers too soon.”