Even without accounting for the 1,521 females who played high school football, there were still 1,086,627 males playing, which greatly exceeded the number of boys and girls playing all other sports combined.
While the sport continues to grow in popularity at all age levels, there has also been an increase in the level of competition, intensity, and required skill. Athletes who play football will be subjected to much greater physical requirements, as well as the need to protect themselves from possible injury at more competitive levels.
Between 2000 and 2014, it was reported that there were 30,186 injuries in the NFL, which consequently led to 51,596 weeks of play missed. It was also reported that knee injuries were the most common, costing players over 7,000 weeks of play sitting on the injured list. In the top 10 most damaging injuries were Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries, which are ranked so high because of their high frequency and severity.
ACL injuries are an extremely common issue in any sport based solely on the design of the knee and the extreme movements required of it. The anterior cruciate ligament is located in the middle of the knee joint, and it has the large responsibility of keeping the thigh bone (femur) and the shinbone (tibia) connected.
Unfortunately for the ACL, its design makes it vulnerable to the high amount of force and exertion that is pressed upon it. As we evolved to stand on two feet instead of four, we lost the added support of our front limbs and back to take off some of the pressure from our lower limbs. Now, however, the lower limbs and knee joint are solely responsible for keeping us upright and balanced, regardless of our movements.
The aggressive movements of starting and stopping, changing direction quickly, and twisting are all movements that the knee must now support and strain against to keep the bones together. Unfortunately, unless we spend all of our time walking or light jogging, it’s safe to say that at some point we all put our bodies in these grueling positions, whether through sports, activities, or hobbies. When the knee cannot support the intense movements, the leg bones will twist and pull away from each other, commonly snapping the ACL as a result.
As suggested earlier, competition and performance expectations are always increasing. Many athletes see the need to be bigger and stronger as a necessary requirement, in order to out-compete the competition. With this in mind, many athletes (football players, especially) are bulking up to be stronger and more effective on the field; however, the added weight may also be a factor for the amount of pressure being pressed upon the knee joint.
Recent studies have compared the height and weight of football players in 1924 to those of players in 2014. It was recorded that, in 1924, only a small percentage of players (less than 0.8%) reached 260 lbs. In 2014, it was recorded that a small percentage of NFL players were reaching a weight that was upward of 340 lbs.
The increase in both height and weight is certainly a factor in the increased ACL injuries in football players, with so much strain being put on the body in combination with more speed, aggression, and agility.
With so many injuries in the professional league, teams are always searching for the most effective way to get their players back on the field with their previous skill restored.
Unfortunately, for many players, returning to their original skill level may never be possible; once the knee has been weakened by a tear, it is generally always going to be slightly weaker by default. There are, however, a few ways for players to quicken their healing process and strengthen the knee back to playing condition.
Many athletes with a full tear of the ACL will opt to undergo surgery to reconstruct the ligament. This surgery has certainly improved over time, and does offer a much faster healing and recovery process than it once did for athletes.
However, reconstructive surgery on the ACL will still require at least a few months of heavy rehabilitation as well as a spot on the injured list, and even then it is not always certain that the athlete will be able to compete at the same level again.
For some players, a minor tear or strain may be healed by rehabilitation, which includes a lot of stretching, strengthening, and muscle memory exercises to bring the knee back to its original level of performance. While this may be an option for those who aren’t looking to race back into the game, most professionals will likely opt for surgery, as recovery is much quicker and generally more successful for a return to the sport.
For all athletes, the best way to avoid a spot on the injured list is to prevent injuries before they even happen. Injury prevention is an important aspect of an athlete’s regimen. All athletes should be taking preventative measures both before, during, and after practices and games to ensure their safety.
Some preventative measures include stretching and warming up pre-game, stretching and cooling down post-game, working on strengthening exercises on off days, and maintaining a healthy diet all season.
An added preventative measure for athletes would be to educate themselves on the common injuries in their field to put a larger focus on these areas and to maintain injury prevention. For football players, it should be well-known that knees are a common place for injury, and recovery doesn’t happen quickly.
For football players, one of the best ways to prevent injury to the ACL and general knee area is to wear football knee braces for injury prevention. These braces have the ability to protect the knee from aggressive tackles, while also stabilizing the functioning parts of the knee during aggressive movements that would otherwise cause the ligaments to tear.
While not every football player has been converted to the virtues of knee braces, many players in the NFL now wear them regardless of injury to lessen or completely avoid injury. For some teams, knee braces are a requirement.
According to CSN, the New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has enforced the rule of knee braces for all of his linemen for years. Belichick explained that knee braces have come a long way since his coaching days in the 80s and 90s, and he applauds knee brace companies such as DonJoy for creating knee braces that are of a much higher caliber and quality than those of the past.
Belichick recalls seeing some of the braces of his players being aggressively bent and ruined from hard hits and tackles, which could have been the bones of his players if they weren’t wearing a brace. He explained that while some of the players still walk away with knee injuries, they’re much less severe and much easier to treat than they would have been had the athletes played brace-free.
While it’s hard to determine whether the knee braces are the sole reason for injury prevention, many players and coaches swear by them.
Many other studies on football injury have been done to determine whether knee braces have a significant role in preventing knee injuries. A trial done at the United States Military Academy recorded the results of individuals playing in an intramural football league, with one group wearing knee braces and the other group playing brace-free.
It was found in these studies that prophylactic knee injuries were, in fact, a helpful tool in preventing knee injuries to the MCL and that knee issues were significantly reduced while wearing a brace. Studies done involving the Big Ten football league also found that MCL injuries were fewer when knee braces were introduced; however, the results were not very significant.
Unfortunately for these kinds of studies, it’s impossible to know whether a knee brace has helped to prevent an injury or whether it may, in fact, be further harming an injury or causing one to occur. However, there has been no record of knee braces being the cause of a knee injury either on or off the field of play.
For coaches and football organizations, it would seem that knee braces are a much smarter investment than a harmful or ineffective one. For organizations that can afford to provide their players with preventative knee braces, it certainly seems like a smart investment.
To afford an NFL lineman, the organization is generally willing to pay top dollar for the best players. Linemen are some of the highest-paid players on a team, with the average annual salary of an offensive lineman sitting at $1,267,402, with defensive ends and defensive tackles also seeing an impressive income.
That being said, each team plays 16 games in a regular season between September and January. If a team is paying an offensive lineman $1,000,000, that’s paying out $62,500 per game! For this kind of money, it makes a lot of sense for a team to invest in preventative knee braces to ensure that they’re paying for a player who is healthy and playable.
The Bottom Line
Wearing a knee brace is all about preference. Some players will not play a game without their knee brace, while others fear that their performance may be hindered by a heavy brace. There are certainly pros and cons to a knee brace; however, it seems that the pros may greatly outweigh the latter, solely based on the potential for injury prevention.
While knee braces may be a hefty investment for some, the cost of ACL reconstructive surgery or rehabilitation with a sports doctor will certainly cost a pretty penny. Also, significant injuries can sometimes leave permanent damage or end an athlete’s career so preventive care is a smart choice.
Another con against wearing a knee brace is the potential for hindering a player’s performance; however, it has been found through research that athletes who adhere to wearing a knee brace consistently should get used to the brace within only a few weeks’ time. Research suggests that athletes will become comfortable with their brace over time and return to full functioning fairly quickly, suggesting that knee braces are not causing poorer performance.
It’s hard to put a number on the number of times a knee brace has prevented a serious injury in a football player; however, it is important to know that sports knee braces in football are specifically designed to provide optimal protection to the ACL, MCL, PCL, and collateral ligaments. Over time, these braces have been improved to offer a sleek, sturdy, extremely low-profile design that works alongside an athlete without being too inhibiting or heavy.
Impressive features of these more modern knee braces include added air flow to the limbs, a contoured fit for every individual, and the ability to work alongside the knee’s movements, instead of forcing the knee into uncomfortable positions.
For those who have been considering a knee brace to prevent injury, it’s a great idea to speak to your doctor or a sports physician ahead of time to talk about your options. Many of the knee braces available today have been designed for very specific needs, and it’s important to pinpoint your reasons to find the most effective one for you. While it cannot be proven outright that knee braces will help protect football players, braces are certainly a good tool for injury prevention and protection and should be seriously considered for sports activities.