Matildas superstar Ellie Carpenter’s career was nearly derailed when she suffered an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury while playing for French club Olympique Lyonnais last year.
- There have been 10 season-ending knee injuries in the NRLW this year
- Nine players have suffered ACL injuries so far this AFLW season
- Calls are made to collect centralized data on ACL injuries in female athletes
With the help of orthopedic surgeon Jobe Shatrov, who performed a knee reconstruction, Carpenter was able to return for this year’s FIFA Women’s World Cup.
“I was quite shocked, more than half of the (Olympique Lyonnais) players had suffered an ACL injury during a competitive season,” Dr Shatrov told ABC Sport.
“It’s extraordinary for the best women’s football team in Europe and it made me worry about what was going to happen in Australia.”
This season, the NRLW has seen 10 season-ending knee injuries, while nine AFLW players have suffered their ACLs in just nine rounds for 2023.
Dr Shatrov now runs Australia’s first dedicated knee injury center, the Knee Institute, and has been shocked by the explosion in the number of young female athletes seeking treatment for ACL injuries.
“In some studies, a woman’s risk compared to a man’s is eight times higher,” he said.
“What I see now is an increased need for surgery, more MRIs, more physical therapists, stress on the healthcare system, workplaces, schools, sports teams – a whole stream of effects .”
The ACL connects the femur to the tibia and stabilizes the knee.
Sports that involve sudden stops, changes of direction, and twisting put the ACL at risk of tearing.
If a rupture occurs, reconstructive surgery is necessary, with up to 12 months of rehabilitation.
Rugby league player Tayla Curtis ruptured her ACL in April and is deep in a long and excruciating recovery, which has involved two painful surgeries.
The 20-year-old also lost her job at a cafe and is struggling to make ends meet.
“You’re playing the sport you love and the next minute you’re learning how to walk again. It’s really frustrating and scary,” Curtis said.
“I haven’t been able to work for six months and I’m on workers’ compensation and I get about $600 a month.”
Elite performance coach Dean Benton developed the “Triple Jump Readiness Test,” which identifies women at high risk of ACL injury.
The test involves jumps, steps and changes of direction, which assess an athlete’s leg power and coordination using AI technology.
“Prevention is key. Research shows that if you anticipate and provide women with adequate and appropriate preparation, you can prevent them (injuries),” Benton said.
The testing method has been adopted at some clubs in the A-League, Queensland Rugby League, NRL’s Melbourne Storm, AFLW’s Melbourne Demons and international soccer clubs.
Wynnum Manly Seagulls prop Rease Casey took part in the tests, something she wishes she could have accessed before a knee reconstruction in 2021.
“Two years ago I didn’t know you had to isolate your muscles to prevent injury, I didn’t have gym support or any information about ACLs,” she said.
“That would have helped a lot.”
“Women are abandoned”
Australian cricket star Ellyse Perry says joining the “ACL club” is a major concern for women in sport.
“The much higher rate of women suffering ACL injuries is something that field running sports are really aware of,” Perry said.
“How quickly many women’s leagues have come up and how relatively inexperienced some of the players are – you have a lot of girls coming from different sports, who probably haven’t had enough training volume and specific movements that are relevant for the sports they play. “I play now.”
Having nuanced programs specifically aimed at women, rather than reworking male-based methods, could also prevent injuries.
“I think women are disappointed,” said Kay Crossley, of the Australian Physiotherapy Association.
“Considering things like the menstrual cycle, do they need child care, do they have enough time to prevent injuries, do the rehabilitation work, how do different boots affect women.”
It is not yet fully understood why these issues affect so many female athletes.
“We are not collecting centralized data at the moment,” Dr. Shartrov said.
“If we don’t have reliable data, we will never find the answer, but we definitely need to do more and raise awareness.
“It will affect participation levels, discouraging women from sport, particularly young people. You will see these horrible career-ending injuries and parents will say, ‘I don’t want my child playing this sport’.”