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Common injuries in the AFL season: How to prevent them and how to treat them

Apr 11, 2023 | Surgery, Knee, Patient Tips

It’s no secret that Aussies love sport. Three million of us volunteer in sport each year, 41% of over-15s play sport at least once a week and 88% of us believe sport brings our communities together.

Whether it’s backyard cricket, touch footy or a spot of tennis, we love to play. And we love to watch others play.

Most of all, though, we love our national sport – Aussie rules, a high-intensity sport that requires a combination of strength, agility, and endurance. The 127th Australian Football League season is now underway. Eighteen clubs are battling it out over a 23-game season followed by a 4-week finals season that culminates on 30 September. The women’s season ends a little while later. Underpinning it all are the community clubs and school fixtures.

But the risk of injury is always there in the AFL season (and the NRL and Rugby Union seasons too). Collisions, tackles, fractures, concussions, sprains, lost teeth, bleeding noses – when you think about it, AFL can be quite a brutal sport. Perhaps that’s why we enjoy it so much…Let’s take a look at the injuries most prevalent in AFL, how you may be able to prevent them, and what your treatment options are if you do happen to get injured.

 

Knee injuries in AFL

AFL is a fast-paced game requiring many energetic moves and sudden changes in direction. You can easily twist your knee as you pivot, jump or land on one foot. La Trobe University and the AFLW report that 70-80% of ACL injuries occur in non-contact positions when decelerating and changing direction, or landing on one leg.

Types

Your knee is a complex, weight-bearing joint, held together by strong muscles and ligaments. It’s alarmingly easy to tear your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) or meniscus during an AFL game. These are sudden and very painful injuries that will usually result in you hobbling off the pitch (or even being stretchered off). Knee injuries are much more common among AFLW players than among their male counterparts (there are various theories as to why that may be). Plenty of AFL names have sustained knee injuries over the years. Dual Brownlow medalist and premiership captain Chris Judd tore his ACL in 2015 and never played again. Nic Naitanui and Erin Phillips have both taken time out due to ACL tears. And poor Daniel Menzel tore his ACL four times before his 22nd birthday!

Knee injuries are serious. They can be career-ending or career-limiting. How do you prevent one from happening to you?

Prevention

To prevent knee injuries, the AFL recommends players strengthen the soft tissues supporting the knee by performing exercises focused on the quads, hamstrings and glutes (think lunges, squats, wall sits, leg presses and curls) as well as practising how to land safely after a jump.

These movements can be incorporated into your warm-up routine and used as conditioning exercises throughout the week.

Many sports now have ACL injury prevention programs in place. Prep to Play is a comprehensive program that seeks to reduce the rate of ACL injury among female AFL players.

In soccer, FIFA’s 11+ program is an ACL injury prevention program that has been proven to reduce the rate of ACL injuries in amateur athletes. More locally, Football Australia’s Perform+ program is a suite of suite of free resources designed to assist players at all levels of the sport to reduce their risk of injury.

Treatment

AFL knee injuries may be treated with conservative programs such as physiotherapy or by surgery to reconstruct the affected tissue.

Learn more about our approach to ACL reconstruction and ACL rehabilitation.

 

Shoulder injuries in AFL

You hear ‘AFL shoulder injury’ and you think ‘Gary Ablett’. The dual Brownlow winner played the 2020 Grand Final with an impaction crack in his left shoulder. That necessitated his third shoulder reconstruction surgery (he’d previously dislocated his shoulder in 2014 and injured it again in 2016).

Types

Shoulder injuries are all too common in AFL. It’s not surprising really – the shoulder can only take so many high-impact tackles with no protective gear covering it. Dislocations can easily happen if you land heavily on your shoulder or collide with another player.

A glenohumeral shoulder dislocation occurs when the ball at the top of your humerus (arm) comes out of the shoulder socket (glenoid). It usually takes traumatic force for that to happen the first time around. That first dislocation can have a lasting impact though. Even after it has been repaired, it can lead to shoulder instability – a weakened shoulder that becomes prone
to repeated dislocations even with fairly minor force.

An acromioclavicular (AC) dislocation occurs at the point where your collarbone and shoulder meet. It’s often the result of falling and landing on the point of your shoulder.

Prevention

Preventing shoulder injuries in contact sports is actually very difficult. A proper warm up and a good strength and conditioning routine can help but, in reality, it’s very difficult to control these injuries.

Treatment

Treatment for shoulder injuries depends on the nature and severity of the injury. It may involve rest, physiotherapy or surgical repair.

Learn more about arthroscopic labral repair of the shoulder and the Latarjet procedure, which Gary Ablett had in 2016.

How can we help?

I’m an experienced orthopaedic surgeon who treats many elite athletes using a multidisciplinary approach.

I have expertise in all aspects of knee surgery, particularly ACL reconstruction, robotic knee replacement, multi-ligament knee reconstruction and limb realignment. I’m also fellowship trained in shoulder surgery, with a focus on sports shoulder injuries.

As a surgeon, I work closely with providers of conservative treatment like physiotherapists and doctors. We work collaboratively with you to assess whether conservative treatment is likely to succeed and to design the right plan for you. We also monitor your progress and, if your condition is not improving, we then review the case for surgery.

Conservative treatment may also help you get into better shape prior to your surgery to maximise results.

Using a minimally invasive approach to surgery wherever possible helps to reduce surgical risks and promotes a speedier recovery.

Once your surgery is done, that prehab becomes rehab, a program of exercises designed to rebuild your strength, flexibility and range of motion so you can get back to sport.

If you’d like an assessment of your injury, please contact me (you’ll need a referral before your appointment).

 

Disclaimer

All information is general and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Any surgical or invasive procedure carries risks. Dr Ross Radic can consult with you to determine if a particular treatment or procedure is right for you. A second opinion may help you decide on your options.