Background: Australian football is a popular sport in Australia, at both the community and elite levels. It is a high-speed contact sport with a higher incidence of medically treated injuries when compared with most other organized sports. Hamstring injuries, ligament injuries to the knee or ankle, hip/groin injuries and tendinopathies are particularly common and often result in considerable time lost from sport. Consequently, the prevention of lower limb injuries is a priority for both community and elite Australian football organizations. There is considerable literature available on exercise programmes aimed at reducing lower limb injuries in Australian football and other running-related sports. The quality and outcomes of these studies have varied considerably, but indicate that exercise protocols may be an effective means of preventing lower limb injuries. Despite this, there has been limited high-quality and systematic evaluation of these data.
Objective: The aim of this literature review is to systematically evaluate the evidence about the benefits of lower limb injury prevention exercise protocols aimed at reducing the most common severe lower limb injuries in Australian football.
Methods: The Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, the Cochrane Bone Joint and Muscle Trauma Group Specialized Register, MEDLINE and other electronic databases were searched, from January 1990 to December 2010. Papers reporting the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs), quasi-RCTs, cohort and case-control studies were extracted. Primary outcomes were injury reduction or risk factor identification and/or modification. Secondary outcomes were adherence to any trialled interventions, injury severity and adverse effects such as secondary injuries and muscle soreness. The methodological quality of extracted manuscripts was assessed and results were collated.
Results: Forty-seven papers were identified and reviewed of which 18 related to hamstring injury, eight related to knee or ankle ligament injury, five related to tendon injury and four were hip or groin injury related. Another 12 papers targeted general lower limb injuries. Most (n = 27 [57%]) were observational studies, investigating injury risk factors. Twenty reported the results of intervention trials. Of these, 15 were efficacy trials reporting the effects of an intervention in reducing injury rates, four were biomechanical interventions in which the impact of the intervention on a known injury risk factor was assessed and one reported changes in injury risk factors as well as injury rates. The strength of the evidence base for exercise programmes for lower limb injury prevention was found to be limited, primarily due to the research methods employed, low adherence to interventions by the study participants and a lack of statistical power. Limited evidence obtained from a small number of RCTs suggests that balance and control exercises might be efficacious in preventing ankle ligament injuries and a programme involving a combination of balance and control exercises, eccentric hamstring, plyometrics and strength exercises could be efficacious in preventing all lower limb injuries.
Conclusions: Overall, the evidence for exercise programmes as an efficacious lower limb injury prevention strategy is predominantly restricted to studies addressing injury aetiology and mechanisms. The findings of this review highlight the need to develop and test interventions in well designed population-based trials with an emphasis on promoting intervention uptake and adherence and, hence, intervention effectiveness. The results of this review can inform the development of the components of a future lower limb injury prevention exercise protocol for community-level Australian football.