Injuries of Achilles tendons soar in NFL - how you can avoid the same fate
(COLUMBUS, Ohio) – It’s happened to Brad Pitt and George Clooney. Tiger Woods, Elisabeth Shue and even Vice President Al Gore have gone through it - and now, so are an alarming number of professional football players.
They have all had injuries to their Achilles tendons and, this year alone in the NFL, the number of players who have been sidelined by these injuries has more than quadrupled.*
And now experts are warning the rest of us to take heed of their injuries, or run the risk of suffering the same fate.
“These injuries can happen to anyone,” said Timothy Hewett, PhD, Director of Research at Ohio State University Medical Center‘s Sports Medicine Department. “From kids playing sports to weekend warriors to professional athletes - no one is immune.”
The Achilles is the tendon that stretches over your heel and injuries to that part of the body can not only be extremely painful, but terribly debilitating. If surgery is required, recovery can take 6 to 8 months, often more.
In fact, “in the NFL, a third or more of athletes who rupture their achilles tendon never play again,” said Hewett. “And even those who do come back lose a full year of participation.”
But it’s not just NFL players who are at risk. Anyone who doesn’t take the time to stretch and properly prepare to compete, runs the risk of injuring their Achilles tendon, especially those over 30.
This past summer contract negotiations delayed the start of NFL training camps, and that time off may have proved costly. “Because these players were locked out, they did not have access to their professional sports medicine team,” said Hewett. “We really think, based on the data, that that had a huge impact on their readiness to compete. The bottom line is, preparation for play is very important.”
That’s a lesson Matt Williams learned the hard way. While training for a half marathon, Matt realized something was wrong. “A couple months into my training, I could tell that I was having some pain in my left ankle and I knew it was more than just a tweak,” Williams said.
It turns out, scar tissue had begun to develop between his ankle bone and Achilles tendon. “There was a lot of pain, stiffness and immobility,” he said. “It has taken a solid two months of being committed to physical therapy just to get better.”
All things considered, Williams was lucky. His tendon did not tear and he avoided surgery. But he learned his lesson just the same.
“I make sure I stretch now. Life gets busy and I’ve been there where it’s hard to dedicate 10-15 minutes for stretching before or after exercise, but I’ve found that it’s very important.”
That’s advice Hewett echoes for everyone, especially NBA players who, like their NFL counterparts, have been affected by a delay in the start of training camps. “If we start thinking about what’s going on in the NBA, that same thing may occur” he said.
“Extrapolate what we’ve seen in the NFL, and I could see in the NBA in the range of 2, 3, 4 times higher rates of injury,” said Hewett. “This could be a historic event, where we start to think, ‘Is there a potential for really putting players at risk by these legal wranglings?’”
As for everyday athletes, Hewett offers this advice. First, ease into any exercise routine. This time of year many of us make resolutions to join the gym and lose weight, but doing too much too soon can take a toll. “Especially men in their 40 somethings and 50 somethings who go out and play a round of tennis, or go to the YMCA and play basketball,” he said. “Those weekend warriors are actually at significant risk of an achilles tendon injury.”
Also, carefully incorporate plyometric exercises into your routine, which strengthen tendons and add flexibility. Plyometric exercises include things like squatting then jumping, or deep knee bends.
Finally, as Matt Williams will tell you, always take time to stretch before and after workouts. “It makes all the difference,” he said. Just look at the high-profile athletes and celebrities who can attest to that.
*Did the NFL Lockout Expose the Achilles Heel of Competitive Sports?, Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Volume 41, Number 10, October 2011. Abstract online: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21941038