Full-thickness knee articular cartilage defects in national football league combine athletes undergoing magnetic resonance imaging: prevalence, location, and association with previous surgery

Arthroscopy. 2012 Jun;28(6):798-806. doi: 10.1016/j.arthro.2011.11.010. Epub 2012 Feb 4.


Purpose: To better define the prevalence and location of full-thickness articular cartilage lesions in elite football players undergoing knee magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) at the National Football League (NFL) Invitational Combine and assess the association of these lesions with previous knee surgery.

Methods: We performed a retrospective review of all participants in the NFL Combine undergoing a knee MRI scan from 2005 to 2009. Each MRI scan was reviewed for evidence of articular cartilage disease. History of previous knee surgery including anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction, meniscal procedures, and articular cartilage surgery was recorded for each athlete. Knees with a history of previous articular cartilage restoration surgery were excluded from the analysis.

Results: A total of 704 knee MRI scans were included in the analysis. Full-thickness articular cartilage lesions were associated with a history of any previous knee surgery (P < .001) and, specifically, previous meniscectomy (P < .001) but not with anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction (P = .7). Full-thickness lesions were present in 27% of knees with a previous meniscectomy compared with 12% of knees without any previous meniscal surgery. Full-thickness lesions in the lateral compartment were associated with previous lateral meniscectomy (P < .001); a similar relation was seen for medial meniscus tears in the medial compartment (P = .01).

Conclusions: Full-thickness articular cartilage lesions of the knee were present in 17.3% of elite American football players at the NFL Combine undergoing MRI. The lateral compartment appears to be at greater risk for full-thickness cartilage loss. Previous knee surgery, particularly meniscectomy, is associated with these lesions.

Level of evidence: Level IV, therapeutic case series.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament / surgery
  • Athletes*
  • Cartilage, Articular / injuries*
  • Cartilage, Articular / surgery
  • Football / injuries*
  • Humans
  • Knee Injuries / diagnosis*
  • Knee Injuries / epidemiology*
  • Knee Injuries / surgery
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Male
  • Menisci, Tibial / surgery
  • Prevalence
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Young Adult