Return to Play and Player Performance After Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury in Elite Australian Rules Football Players

Orthop J Sports Med. 2017 Jun 21;5(6):2325967117711885. doi: 10.1177/2325967117711885. eCollection 2017 Jun.


Background: Australian Rules football is a highly aerobic and anaerobic game that at times requires players to perform cutting or pivoting maneuvers, potentially exposing them to anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury. At present, there are limited data available addressing the impact of ACL injury on return to play and preinjury form after ACL reconstruction.

Purpose: To determine the prevalence of ACL injury and the incidence of further ACL injury, and to consider player return to play and return to preinjury form after ACL reconstruction. It was hypothesized that elite-level Australian Football League (AFL) players do not return to preinjury form until, at minimum, 2 years after returning to play.

Study design: Case series; Level of evidence, 4.

Methods: A retrospective analysis was undertaken on a cohort of elite AFL players who injured their ACL between 1990 and 2000. Return to play after ACL reconstruction was determined by the mean number of ball disposals, or release of the ball by the hand or foot, at 1, 2, and 3 years after return to play and compared with preinjury form. Associations between player and injury characteristics, method of reconstruction, and outcomes (return to play, preinjury form, and further ACL injury) were examined.

Results: During the included seasons, a total of 2723 AFL players were listed. Of these, 131 (4.8%) sustained an ACL injury, with 115 players eligible for inclusion. Of 115 players, 26% did not return to elite competition, while 28% of those who did return experienced further ACL injury. The adjusted mean number of disposals (± standard error of the mean) was significantly lower at 1 year (12.21 ± 0.63; P = .003), 2 years (12.09 ± 0.65; P = .008), and 3 years (11.78 ± 0.77; P = .01) after return to play compared with preinjury (14.23 ± 0.67). On average, players did not return to preinjury form by 3 years (P < .01). Players aged 30 years or older were less likely to return to play compared with younger players (P = .0002), moderate-weight players were more likely to return to play compared with lighter-weight players (P = .007), and there were significantly increased odds of not returning to play if the dominant side was injured (odds ratio, 0.10; 95% CI, 0.03-0.34; P = .0002).

Conclusion: On average, AFL players do not return to their preinjury form after ACL injury and reconstruction, a common injury in this sporting population. This along with the high occurrence of reinjury highlights the career-threatening nature of ACL injury for elite AFL players.

Keywords: ACL reconstruction; Australian Rules football; anterior cruciate ligament; functional outcome; sports injury.