Knee injuries not always the end

Knee ligament injuries have claimed the seasons of players such as Boston Celtics’ Rajon Rondo, Olympic Skier Lindsey Vonn and the Chicago Bulls’ Derrick Rose.

It is a common injury for athletes because of the physical strain they apply to themselves during competition. Although the injury can devastate a career, the moment the injury occurs has an unexpected feel, said Chelsea Cunningham, a former Saluki volleyball player.

“It’s a very weird experience,” she said. “It’s very painful when it first happens, but then you feel nothing. I thought I was okay at first, but when I was getting up I couldn’t really balance myself and if I stayed still for a while my kneecap would swell up to the size of a grapefruit.”

Cunningham is no stranger to knee ligament injuries, as she has endured three separate tears of her anterior cruciate ligament. She said the more tears you sustain, the more likely you are to tear it again in either knee.

“I had a lot of emotions every single time,” Cunningham said. “(While waiting for my MRI,) I had this little glimmer of hope that, ‘OK, maybe nothing is wrong with me,’ but this last time I knew what it was. Some people are just more prone to having those injuries, and I guess I was just one of them.”

The injuries ended Cunningham’s collegiate career for fear of further injury. However, the tear does not always render the same outcome for every player.

Vikings halfback Adrian Peterson showed this variation over the past two seasons. Peterson tore both his ACL and medial collateral ligament in a game against the Washington Redskins late in the 2011 season. Despite this, he ran for a career-high 2,097 yards the following season, which was just eight yards shy of St. Louis Rams running back Eric Dickerson’s record. Although he fell short of breaking it, Peterson’s effort earned him the NFL’s MVP and offensive player of the year awards.

Lee Land, assistant athletic director for sports medicine and performance, said athletes can normally return from an ACL injury after about six months. However, he said it takes about nine-15 months before players report complete restoration.

“That’s what’s so impressive about Adrian Peterson’s case,” Land said. “Here he tears his ACL at the end of the 2011 season, and essentially nine months later he returns to play and starts a season where he starts to challenge Dickerson’s single-season record. That’s incredible.”

Rich Clough, department of anatomy professor and chair, credited the surgical procedure’s advancement to the ligament’s exceptional recovery time. He said repairment surgery takes a piece of the patellar ligament and uses it to replace the ruptured ACL. The patellar ligament section then gets sewn shut, he said, and heals over.

“The rehab and surgery to replace ruptured ligaments is a heck of a lot better than it used to be,” Clough said.

Although the surgery is serious, Cunningham said it is not the most difficult part. Full recovery can prove to be  the biggest challenge, she said.

The rehab is god awful,” she said. “It is the most excruciating pain I have ever felt in my life. You really have to push yourself every day to wake up, go to rehab and know that you’re working to make your leg healthier and better in the long run. That’s the only way your leg is going to feel somewhat like it used to feel.”

Despite her injuries, Cunningham said she stays involved with sports in media services and shares words of confidence for players who suffered the same injuries.

“Anybody going through this injury, I just want to let them know that they can do it,” she said. “I have done it three times now and my sister has gone through two knee injuries and I want them to know it is possible. Stay strong and keep your head up.”

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