We’re all aware that knee injuries are far and away the most common serious injury in the Union code, especially ACL tears. It’s the price we pay for the sport we play: unlike other codes, Union is a succession of grind-it-out, stop-and-start plays which put huge amount of stress on the knees.
Consider the way we tackle – much lower on the body compared to other contact sports – and it’s clear to see why the knees cop the most damage. They can be taken out in an instant, by a player landing on your leg in a ruck, or an opponent shoulder-tackling from the side. Or they can be worn down over the years, especially in the scrum.
Factor in the indisputable fact that the game is getting faster, the players are getting more athletic and the seasons are getting longer, and it’s fair to say that the risk of knee injury looms large over everyone who plays the game, regardless of age, level and ability. And one of the most common injuries is the ACL tear, so let’s talk about it.
The basics of an ACL injury
Located deep within the knee joint, the Anterior Cruciate Ligament is a very important thing indeed. In a nutshell, it stops your knee from rotating too much, helps keep the shin in place, and is a crucial component in maintaining joint stability. But it can be torn over time by repetitive turning and changing direction, and it can also be instantly damaged by any violent impact on the knee during a game.
However, it happens, an ACL tear – from minor to major – is not fun. Symptoms include mild to severe instability, painful swelling and a long layoff from playing and exercising. And there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure – solutions depend upon the severity of the tear. In extreme cases (or in the case of high-level players who need to recover ASAP) ACL reconstruction surgery will be recommended.
However, in less extreme cases, a period of highly structured rehabilitation is recommended. And while it goes without saying that a complete recovery programme will be designed to strengthen all the muscles in the affected area, it’s the quadriceps which really come into their own.
Why quads matter in ACL rehab
The primary function of the quads is to bend and straighten your knee, but they’re involved in almost every movement your legs go through. They work in harmony with other leg muscles in order to promote effective movement, running, squatting, cycling and balance. When an ACL injury occurs, all the work the quads put in are cast to the wind – no matter how severe the injury. When you’re out of action, the quads are the muscles which suffer from lack of exercise the most.
A recent study from America spelt out the bare facts recently: according to the study, young athletes who have returned to competition after ACL reconstruction with lower quadriceps strength than before running an increased risk of a second – and more damaging ACL injury.
So, while you’re focusing on the state of your ACL and contemplating a return to play, it’s vital that you take care of your quads.