Epidemiology of Anterior Cruciate Ligament Tears in the National Football League

Am J Sports Med. 2021 Jun;49(7):1786-1793. doi: 10.1177/03635465211010146. Epub 2021 Apr 30.


Background: Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are common in contact athletics and have a significant effect on the athletic performance and well-being of affected players. The prevalence, timing, and characteristics of ACL tears in National Football League (NFL) athletes are lacking.

Purpose: To define the epidemiology of ACL tears among NFL athletes.

Study design: Descriptive epidemiology study.

Methods: This retrospective study includes all ACL injuries entered into the NFL injury database through the centralized leaguewide electronic health record system for the 2015-2019 seasons.

Results: A total of 314 ACL injuries occurred during the 5-year study period, with a mean of 62 per year. The overall 1-season injury risk of an NFL player sustaining an ACL injury was 1.9% (95% CI, 1.7%-2.1%). Most ACL injuries occurred during games (n = 199), with a higher rate observed in the preseason games as compared with the regular season games (6.1 vs 2.7 per 10,000 player-plays; P < .01). NFL players with ≤3 of experience had a higher preseason injury rate (9.57 ACL tears per 1000 player-seasons) than those with ≥4 years of experience (5.12 ACL tears per 1000 player-seasons; P < .01). NFL athletes playing on special teams had the highest rate of ACL injuries (7.6 per 10,000 player-plays) in comparison with all other player positions.

Conclusion: ACL injury incidence was fairly consistent across all years studied and occurred more frequently in players with ≤3 years of NFL experience. Tears were more common during games, special teams play, and the preseason.

Keywords: ACL injury; NFL; epidemiology; football; knee.

MeSH terms

  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries* / epidemiology
  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries* / etiology
  • Athletes
  • Football*
  • Humans
  • Retrospective Studies
  • Soccer*