NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - A handful of players are sidelined by torn knee cartilage every season in the National Basketball Association, according to a new study, and most make a full recovery within a couple months.
In the last week, at least three NBA teams announced that one of their players would miss the first few weeks of a shortened season with a torn meniscus, including new Charlotte Bobcats hire Reggie Williams, Derrick Caracter of the Los Angeles Lakers and Eric Bledsoe of the Los Angeles Clippers.
The new study suggests that when those athletes do make it back on to the court, they'll be able to play at the same level as before they got injured.
The meniscus is made up of two C-shaped pieces of cartilage in the knee, separating the thighbone and the shinbone. A twisting force on the knee can cause the cartilage to tear, as can a hit from the side in a contact sport.
That's why meniscus tears are generally more common in football than in basketball, researchers said. But the new findings suggest that they should be added to the list of traditional basketball knee injuries, along with jumper's knee and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
"We don't think of meniscal injuries as that common in basketball," said Dr. Joel Newman, a radiologist who treats NBA players at New England Baptist Hospital in Boston.
Based on the new findings, "It's something that should be considered in a patient with knee pain," he said.
Researchers tracked 20 years of injury reports submitted by NBA trainers to a league-wide database. During that time, knee injuries accounted for almost one in ten of all injuries that forced players to miss games or practices or see doctors.
Out of a total of 1,671 reported knee problems, there were 129 meniscus tears that occurred alone, without other ligament injuries such as ACL tears.
That works out to one or two injuries for every 10,000 practices and games played by an NBA athlete, Dr. F. Daniel Kharrazi from the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Los Angeles and colleagues report in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.
Most of the injuries weren't related to contact with another player, and more than one-third of them came on gradually over time.
While one in five of the athletes never returned to play another NBA game after the injury, those that did return generally got back to their pre-injury playing level. That was based on a calculation that weighed athletes' points, rebounds, fouls and turnovers in the seasons right before and after the injury.
The athletes missed about six weeks worth of practice and games before returning to play, on average.
Recovery time from a meniscus tear depends on how extensive the injury is and whether it needs surgery, said Dr. Mark Drakos, an orthopedic surgeon at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York.
"There are certain guys that have gotten back in a couple weeks and there's other people... that take more like three or four months," Drakos, who wasn't involved in the new study, told Reuters Health.
But he said that the findings were generally good news for both professional and recreational athletes who suffer a meniscus injury.
"I would be encouraged in terms of the fact that a lot of these guys return to play at a high level," Drakos said.
Newman, who also wasn't linked to the research, told Reuters Health that he wondered if there were more NBA players out there with slow-onset meniscal injuries that hadn't been recorded in the injury database, because they kept playing through the pain or just weren't that bothered by it.
"I can't remember a professional basketball player who did not have some minimal cartilage loss at the knee," he said. "It's very unusual to see a player who's been playing for a while and has a pristine-looking knee."
Researchers said it's possible that injuries will be more common in the NBA this year than in past years. The season was shortened due to labor negotiations, and teams have had less preseason conditioning and will be playing more tightly-packed games with fewer rest days.
SOURCE: bit.ly/vZgWiC American Journal of Sports Medicine, online November 30, 2011.