How Sports Injuries and Recovery have and have not Changed Over Time


There are many benefits to being a modern-day athlete. We have a much better understanding of nutrition, training, and recovery. Sports science and medicine have also made tremendous strides over the last 50 years. But not every sports-related injury. Some sports injuries follow the same recovery patterns as they did in the 1970s. Other injuries remain an enigma and challenge for sports going forward. Here are different examples of injuries and recovery and how they have or have not changed over time.

The Evolution of ACL Surgery and Recovery

In the 1960s and 1970s, doctors did not fully understand the importance of the ligament. Some doctors even missed diagnosed ACL injuries, and when they did treat them, they treated them poorly. Surgeries could end the career of an athlete. Because of the risk, athletes would often skip undergoing ACL surgeries. Skipping the surgery often leads to additional tears in other parts of the knee, such as the meniscus. Many athletes who skip the surgery eventually developed arthritis.

Over the last four decades, ACL surgeries have vastly advanced and improved. A glowing example of this is NFL running back Adrian Peterson. Peterson tore his ACL and MCL on December 24, 2011. He shortly after underwent surgery and was able to return in time to start the 2012 NFL season. Peterson came back from the injury, arguably better than ever. Peterson won the NFL MVP in 2012 and came eight yards from breaking the NFL single-season rushing yards record. At the time, even those who checked out a MyBookie review and bet on the 2012 NFL MVP did not see Adrian Peterson coming back as strong as he did.

Depending on your sports will dictate your recovery time. Sports with more torque on the knee need more recovery time to recover. But no matter what sport you play, an ACL surgery is not likely career-ending like it was 45 years ago.

Tommy John From the 1970s to Modern Day

Ulnar collateral ligament reconstruction – named Tommy John after the first baseball player to undergo the procedure – is a common sports surgery, especially in baseball. The first surgery performed on a baseball player was in 1974, on left-handed pitcher Tommy John. Before 1974, tearing a UCL was a potentially career-ending injury. John took a risk and allowed Dr. Jobe to perform surgery to replace the ligament in his elbow.

While the recovery was long – with Tommy John out of the league for the entire 1975 season – and required a secondary surgery in January 1975, John was able to return to the mound in 1976. Not only did he return, but he also pitched until 1989 and made three straight all-star games from 1978 to 1980.

Forty-five years later, Tommy John surgery is much more common in baseball. However, after thousands of procedures on baseball players worldwide, the recovery window is roughly the same. The challenge, no matter the era, is the torque pitching puts on the elbow. While modern Tommy John surgeries do go smoother than early one, the time it takes for the ligament to attach and the rehab following has remained consistent. There is also no guarantee a player will come back from this surgery as good as they were before.

Understanding Concussions in Sports

Concussions are the most significant issue – at least injury-wise – in sports. Over the last two decades – with much of the credit going to Dr. Bennett Omalu – collision sports (the NFL, NHL, rugby leagues, and boxing, to list a few) are gaining a better understanding of concussions and Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE).

The issue with concussions is the issues they cause do not show until later on in life. Mood swings, depression, and other neurological disorders are a few side effects of repetitive brain trauma, leading to higher substance abuse and higher suicide rates. There is also the issue of CTE only diagnosable in a post-mortem.

As treating concussions involves recovering from the immediate impacts and not the possible long term effects, the goal in the sports world is to prevent them from happening. Improved equipment, rule changes, and proper training all help prevent concussions, but nothing outside of avoiding playing – or your kids playing – sports is 100% effective.


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