Samford University's women's soccer team had a problem. Despite impressive wins and multiple Southern Conference championships, the athletes were suffering tears to their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at higher rates than other athletic teams at Samford, particularly in non-contact situations.
"We didn't have our heads in the sand about the ACL trend in women's soccer," the team's head trainer, Brandon Evans, told WBRC. "We really want to do as much as we can to prevent the injuries and keep them on the field."
The ACL is a large ligament in the knee and is a primary stabilizer for the joint. When an ACL ruptures, it is not only painful, but extremely costly and includes a lengthy recovery period. To be competitive as a collegiate athlete, an ACL tear nearly always requires surgery and sidelines a player for six months to a year.
"For me it wasn't as much pain as it was just shock because when it happens you just kind of know," said Samford senior Kaitlyn Orman, who has torn the ACL in her left leg twice. "It's not something you like to discuss or relive."
Orman, a midfielder, was named to the SoCon All-Freshman Team in 2015 after battling back from her second surgery. In her three seasons with the Bulldogs, she's seen more than 3,700 minutes of playing time. She's an essential part of their team.
During the 2014, 2015 and 2016 seasons, the Bulldogs dealt with eight ACL injuries that sidelined players like Orman. In 2017, there were zero non-contact ACL injuries on the women's soccer team.
The impressive improvement in injury rate came during the season Samford piloted a study with Champion Sports Medicine aimed at preventing lower extremity sprains and strains.
"Ahead of the 2017 season, we looked at a few things with the program including time lost due to injuries and direct medical costs," explained Physical Therapist Nate Bower of Champion Sports Medicine.
As the team specialist, Bower started using wearable motion sensors, made by Australian company dorsaVi, to assess the athletes within about six months of the that technology becoming available in the United States.
"ACL injuries are all about biomechanics and this is the first-time trainers are getting lab quality data on the field, so they can do real-time assessments to correct bad techniques or harmful movements as they happen," says Trent Nessler, the Regional Director of Operations for Champion Sports Medicine.
Athletes endure an initial assessment wearing the sensors that includes motions like squats, jumping on one foot and planks. A computer program records both video of the athlete and information about how her body moves. It then assigns a numerical score to the athlete's performance.
Using results from their assessments last year, Evans and Bower collaborated with the athletes and coaches on customized workouts meant to improve coordination, balance and flexibility in the athlete's legs. At the end of the season, the team saw a 50 percent reduction in lower extremity injuries and reduced the amount of time lost to injuries by 60 percent.
Other schools are also using motion data to assess athletes, but Samford is one of the first to use this particular technology for injury prevention. The medical cost savings are still being calculated for the women's soccer team, but Nessler says research by Champion Sports Medicine has found schools can save between $30,000 and $50,000 per team per season in insurance claims by using the sensor data to improve physical training.
Samford University is now expanding the injury prevention study to include their men and women's basketball teams. Both squads underwent testing last week. Initial results for the women's team already show promise. Bower says based on their internal data sets from similar groups, the Bulldogs scored nearly 10 points higher.
"The more people we keep on the court, on the field, the better chance we have of winning," said Evans.
Orman adds, "It's been really exciting and reassuring for somebody who has been through this twice to have people taking interest in your team and in the wellness of your team."