Surgery to Patellar Tendon, Achilles Tendon, and ACL Have Greatest Impact on NFL Careers

    Players in the National Football League (NFL) experience a higher rate of injury than athletes in any other professional sport. Until recently, little information was available to assess the effect orthopaedic surgery to address these injuries on players’ future performance and career trajectory.

    To better understand surgery’s impact, researchers from Northwestern Medicine in Chicago, Illinois, created the NFL Orthopaedic Surgery Outcomes Database (NO-SOD), a comprehensive injury database that compares return-to-play rates (RTP) and performance-based outcomes in NFL players who had undergone orthopaedic surgery.

    Analyzing data from the NO-SOD, they found that players who underwent surgical procedures for tendon injuries had a worse career trajectory than players who had surgery to fix fractures and sports hernia.

    Patellar tendon repair had the greatest effect on NFL careers, with anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) repair and Achilles tendon repair also having a strong impact on players’ careers.

    The study was recently published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

    “NFL rosters have a very high turnover rate, so an athlete’s career longevity is often dependent on his ability to return to baseline performance following an injury and recovery from surgery,” said Wellington K. Hsu, MD, an orthopaedic surgeon at the Center for Comprehensive Orthopaedic and Spine Care at Northwestern Memorial Hospital and the study’s senior author.

    “While previous studies have reported outcomes for specific procedures, ours is the first that looks at the effect these injuries and surgeries have in comparison with others.”

    Dr. Hsu and his team created the NO-SOD using team injury reports and other public records, including newspaper archives, player profiles, and press releases, over a 10-year period to identify NFL athletes who had orthopaedic surgeries.

    They then developed performance-based outcome measures based on preoperative and postoperative statistics, including games played, games started, seasons played, and performance score.

    A total of 559 athletes were included in the database, with nearly 80% returning to play after an orthopaedic procedure.

    “The existing NFL Injury Surveillance System tracks the incidence of injuries, but does not allow for outcome studies, which significantly limits league and medical personnel from identifying trends following common orthopaedic procedures,” Dr. Hsu said.

    Included in the NO-SOD are players who had procedures for ACL tears, Achilles tendon tears, patellar tendon tears, cervical disc herniation, lumbar disc herniation, sports hernia, knee articular cartilage repair (microfracture technique), forearm fractures, tibial shaft fractures, and ankle fractures.

    The researchers found that players who had knee surgeries experienced the most significant decline in performance. Athletes who had surgery to repair the patellar tendon fared the worst with respect to the RTP rate, career length after surgery, games played, and performance at 1 year, 2 years, and 3 years after surgery.

    Players had a RTP rate of only 50% after patellar tendon repair, which was significantly lower than all other procedures analyzed. After ACL repair, players experienced significant declines in statistical performance even 3 seasons after their injury.

    “Our findings related to patellar repair and ACL repair highlight how devastating a tendon or ligament injury to the knee can be for an NFL athlete,” Dr. Hsu said.

    “A healthy knee is crucial to a player’s ability to pivot, jump, run, kick, and make stopping movements – all elements of the game of football – so it’s not surprising these procedures would have strong impact on performance.”

    Athletes who underwent Achilles tendon repair fared slightly better than those who required knee procedures. While they experienced longer recovery periods and decreases in games played and performance the first season after surgery, these players were able to return to baseline performance 2 and 3 seasons after surgery.

    Procedures for traumatic bony fractures and sports hernia lead to the best postoperative outcomes with RTP rates of more than 90%.

    “Understanding performance outcomes for common orthopaedic procedures may lead to alterations in training regimens for NFL athletes, as well as help guide short- and long-term postoperative expectations for an athlete’s career,” Dr. Hsu said.

    “Knowing the relative differences in recovery after orthopaedic procedures may be interesting to NFL players, coaches and fans alike.”