From basketball to tennis: ACL tear can’t keep teen athlete off the court

McCartyWill_PostACLsurgeryAt 12 years old, Will McCarty loved basketball. His summer was planned out—basketball camp and tournament play would prep him for his seventh grade basketball team. Everything was going according to plan—until he stepped on a ball while making a layup.

“We thought it was a simple injury,” says his father Bill. A few days after the injury, he seemed fine. When he tried to run, though, his knee buckled. His parents took Will to his doctor at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Manchester, N.H.

A few days later, after the swelling around Will’s knee went down, an MRI revealed a torn ACL. “It felt like a stunning diagnosis,” says Bill. An ACL tear is problematic in growing kids. That’s because ACL reconstruction requires surgeons to drill into the growth plate (the area at the end of the bone that produces new bone tissue and is responsible for bone growth). The surgery could interfere with future growth. Many surgeons recommend waiting until after puberty to perform the surgery.

“This isn’t a great alternative for growing kids,” says Mininder Kocher MD, MPH, associate director, Sports Medicine Division at Boston Children’s Hospital. “They remain at risk for injury with everyday activities, and with a torn ACL, they can’t play sports, which can negatively impact their emotional health.”

“Our doctor told us, ‘There’s a guy in Boston who’s the kingpin of ACL surgery for growing kids,’”recalls Bill. With that endorsement, the family made an appointment with Kocher.

Kocher and Lyle Micheli, MD, director, Sports Medicine Division, pioneered physeal (growth-plate-sparing) ACL surgery. The specialized technique avoids drilling tunnels across the growth plate and does not disrupt future growth.

Will underwent surgery at Boston Children’s in October 2010. “I was pretty sad. I knew that I wouldn’t be able to play basketball with my friends that year,” he says.

His friends visited him, and he committed himself to physical therapy, which included a stationary bike and sports-oriented strength training. “The strength training helped build Will’s confidence,” says Bill. Will also set goals for himself, including returning to summer basketball camp and making the eighth grade basketball team. He achieved both goals. “It felt like a return to normalcy,” says Bill.

ACL surgery and recovery can feel like a long haul, and it’s tough to miss out on sports. “Trust that you can get back to play in the long run,” says Will. Today, Will plays high school tennis and never feels any problems with his knee.

“It seemed like the rug was pulled out from under us when Will injured his ACL. We were lucky that Boston Children’s was close by,” says Bill. Traveling from New Hampshire to Boston for surgery meant Will could have surgery, heal and return to sports.

Boston Children’s orthopedic surgeons and caregivers in the ACL program perform growth-plate-sparing surgeries on hundreds of growing athletes from across the United States every year.

Visit this page to learn about  ACL injury prevention and more.