Sidelined by an ACL Injury, Denzel Worked to Help Ensure a Strong Return

When Denzel injured his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) playing high school basketball, he was heartbroken to leave the game he loved. But his care team made sure that he could return strong.

teen boy playing basketball after pediatric acl surgery

Denzel was a sophomore at Buford High School when he injured himself in a basketball scrimmage.

Landing badly after a jump, he felt a sharp pain in his knee. While he knew something was wrong, he didn’t immediately seek the help of his school’s on-campus Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta athletic trainers. It was a decision he’d come to regret.

Two days after his tough landing, Denzel was running on the court and heard a pop.

This time, Denzel went straight to the trainer—one of the more than 35 Children’s certified athletic trainers covering more than 50 metro Atlanta schools and club sports organizations. The trainer referred him to the Children’s Sports Medicine Program.

Successful ACL surgery

Denzel had injured his ACL and would need surgery to address it—but he remained brave about the prospect. “I wasn’t scared to have surgery because I knew it was going to benefit me, but I was sad because I wouldn’t be able to play basketball for a while,” Denzel says.

The procedure went smoothly. Denzel returned home on crutches the same day, and within two weeks, he began sports physical therapy.

“Physical therapy was nerve-racking at first,” Denzel says. “But once I had my first session and they were talking about my muscle definition being really good and having some form and definition in my legs, it gave me a boost and made me realize it wouldn’t be so bad.”

A careful recovery

Denzel received sports physical therapy at Children’s once a week and worked daily with a Children’s athletic trainer during his school’s weightlifting class.

It would take nine months for Denzel to return to full, unrestricted play. The decision was based on a judicious approach called functional testing, in which a series of tests informs the patient’s recovery timeline based on observed progress.

“This testing measures leg and knee function, and even mental readiness and confidence for returning to sports,” says S. Clifton Willimon, MD, an Orthopedic Surgeon at Children's. “These results help us gradually return growing athletes to play over a three-month period, and most patients return to play nine to 12 months after surgery.”

Functional training helps reduce repeated injury. Research has shown that rapid return to play for high school and college athletes can put them at serious risk.

“At Children’s, we use data and functional analysis to guide our athletes’ return to play rather than an arbitrary point in time,” says Dr. Willimon.

While the wait was difficult, Denzel’s family appreciated the careful approach to his recovery. “It was hard to watch Denzel see the basketball season get started without him, but he’s done so well,” says Michele Earls, Denzel’s mom.

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