Haverhill High School girls’ soccer coach Fred Tarbox calls the rise “an epidemic.”
He was talking about the dramatic increase in the number of young athletes, particularly girls, who have suffered torn anterior cruciate ligaments.
“It seems to be happening more and more,” he said.
Amy Wiggins, an athletic trainer for nearly 25 years, is also seeing the injury occur with female high school athletes at an alarming rate.
“The rate of ACL tears has grown and it’s not slowing down, especially in girls’ soccer,” said Wiggins, athletic trainer at Phillips Andover Academy. “I’m not exactly sure why.”
Her daughter, Alli, a senior forward on the varsity soccer team at Central Catholic in Lawrence, suffered a torn ACL in 2011, as a freshman in a game against Danvers.
“I just cut the wrong way and I heard my knee pop,” said the younger Wiggins, who has committed to play soccer at Harvard next fall.
“It was awful. I didn’t know how to handle it.”
Her mother said, “I didn’t want to believe it. No part of me wanted to believe that that’s what it was.”
Alli endured six months of intense rehabilitation, including surgery. She returned to the field in the spring of her freshman year, for her club team. She is now thriving in her final season at Central.
Though she is three years removed from the injury, she remembers how difficult the process was for everyone.
“You have to be really patient throughout the process,” she said. “A huge component of [the rehab] is just waiting for the gradual step. You have to take it day by day.”
At Haverhill High, Bianca and Basema Hussein have been through a number of challenges on the soccer field together. Last year, they were both in recovery mode from torn ACLs.
Basema, a junior, tore her ligament in the summer of 2013 while playing for her club team.
“No, there can’t be anything wrong,” Basema recalled saying to herself while lying on the ground after the injury. “I don’t know what to do. I can’t be hurt [and] I can’t miss any more soccer.”
Three months later, during a preseason game in Haverhill against a team from Rye, N.Y., Bianca tore hers.
“I [had] my foot on the ball and some girl kicked it out from underneath me so my knee went in and I just heard a crack,” said Bianca, now a senior. “When I got the results it was shocking.”
Their mother, Yolanda, said, “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“The hardest thing was knowing [they] couldn’t play.”
It was an extremely difficult process for the Hussein family, who lives and breathes the game.
“In the beginning it was hard,” Yolanda said of the rehab process, which included months of physical therapy and doctors’ visits. “Every time I would get upset about it, I would keep telling myself it’s going to get better.”
After almost a year away from the soccer field, the Hussein sisters are back playing for Haverhill, equipped with protective knee braces.
“It was weird to just get back into it,” Basema said. “But it was good to be back on the field.”
Bianca added, “It was really nice to actually start kicking the ball and start playing. Mentally, I think I’m 100 percent back.”
“It was a relief and joy to see them playing again,” Yolanda added. “It makes it all worth while to see them happy again.”
According to Dr. Martha Murray, an orthopedic surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, about 70 percent of ACL tears are noncontact injuries.
Caitlin Patten, a senior defender for the Andover High girls, tore her ACL during a noncontact play during the basketball season.
“I was just dribbling down the court and all of the sudden my knee blew,” she said. “It was really scary because I was in a lot of shock and a lot of pain.”
She is back after missing all of last season. Teammates Emily O’Hara and Courtney Grygiel have also torn their ACLs.
“I was really excited, but at the same time I was really nervous and timid because I was scared I would do it again,” Patten said of playing soccer again. “I don’t think I’ll ever get back fully but [it feels] pretty good.”
At North Andover, Rebecca Barnes, a senior defender, will miss her final season after suffering a tear playing for her club team in May.
“It was hard to process it and come to terms with it at first,” said the 17-year-old Barnes. “You have to learn to turn bad situations into a good one.”
Her coach, Lisa Rasanen, said “This is not how she foreshadowed her senior season going, but she’s really taken on a leadership role.”
While the rate of return into sports after an ACL tear is very high, according to Murray, the number of girls tearing their ligaments is an issue that probably won’t fade away in the future.
“I do think it’s becoming an epidemic. Not only is it serious for young girls to have this type of surgery, [but] what’s the knee going to look like when they’re my age,” Amy Wiggins added.
“But I think we are on the right road in trying to educate and to learn how to possibly prevent this.”