Preventing and Treating Knee Injuries in Athletes

Playing football in high school leaves players with memories that last a lifetime. Unfortunately, injuries from playing football can also leave players with lingering pain or mobility issues that last into adulthood.

“The knee is the most common site for an injury in high school football players,” shares Aspirus Sports Medicine Physician Dr. Colleen Dupuis. “Some of the more serious injuries include trauma or tears to the cartilage, ligaments and tendons of the knee.”

Understanding common injuries

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is located on the inside of the knee and can often be injured when the knee is twisted, or a player is tackled. “Those with MCL injuries may experience a pop or a sharp pain in the inner section of the knee at the time of injury,” states Dr. Dupuis. “Following the injury you may experience inner knee tenderness, increased pain and bruising.”

Another common injury to the knee is a tear to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). This ligament is found inside of the knee joint. “ACL injuries can range from mild damage to a partial or complete tear,” shares Dr. Dupuis. “Symptoms include pain and swelling of the knee joint, decrease in range of motion, and instability of the knee.”

The meniscus is a fibrocartilage structure located on the inside of the knee joint and its purpose is to absorb the shock to the knee and keep the knee joint stable. “Athletes who injure their meniscus may feel a pop at the time of injury, but often will be able to keep playing,” states Dr. Dupuis. “Over the days following the injury, most patients report pain, stiffness, swelling, catching or locking of the knee, instability, and loss of range of motion.”

Diagnosing injuries

If an athlete hears a pop or experiences a sharp pain at the time of injury, a visit to a doctor is recommended. In addition, players should also be seen if they experience persistent and significant pain, swelling, redness, tenderness, loss of range of motion or joint instability.

Athletes with knee injuries who visit an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist can expect the physician to do a physical examination to diagnose the injury. It is possible that images of the knee using X-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans may be needed in order to make an accurate diagnosis.

“Unfortunately, in most cases significant injuries to the meniscus or ACL require surgical treatment in order to prevent further damage to the knee structures that can lead to loss of function and early arthritis, states Dr. Dupuis. “Knee injuries should be addressed as early as possible as delayed diagnosis and treatment can lead to irreversible damage.”

Surgical options for ACL injuries, for example, include arthroscopic knee ligament reconstruction surgery. For the meniscus, there are surgical procedures to clean out the site (debride) or repair the tear. Where surgery is indicated, players can expect post-surgical treatment plans to include rehabilitation with a physical therapist.

Preventing knee injuries

“Increasing the strength and flexibility of your knee will help prevent injuries,” adds Dr. Dupuis. “Stretching regularly, warming up adequately before activity, wearing protective equipment properly, avoiding over-use, and getting proper nutrition and rest are the best ways athletes can avoid injury. Making sure athletes are using proper technique when conditioning, lifting weights, and participating in sports can also decrease the risk of a knee injury.

Dr. Dupuis also reinforces the importance of players, parents and coaches supporting the recommendations made by the athlete’s care team. “Returning to play too soon or playing with an untreated injury can result in further damage that may have a devasting outcome on a player’s long-term health.”

Aspirus Health has a team of orthopedic and sports medicine experts available to keep athletes in prime condition. Aspirus provides access to quality orthopedic specialists, from board certified orthopedic surgeons to physical therapists, throughout the Upper Peninsula of Michigan in Ironwood, Iron River, Houghton and Laurium. To learn more, visit