Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are increasingly prevalent in the pediatric population. ACL rehabilitation is an essential component of recovery following injury and reconstruction, yet there are few explicit descriptions of pediatric-specific ACL rehabilitation protocols in the literature, especially in the context of varying treatment interventions. Our aim was to systematically review the literature on rehabilitation following ACL tears in children in order to describe common principles among different treatment options and areas of future research.
Using PRISMA (Preferred Reporting Items for Systematic Reviews and Meta-Analyses) guidelines, we performed a systematic review of the PubMed, EMBASE, and Cochrane databases (for the past five years) to identify detailed rehabilitation protocols described in the pediatric population following ACL rupture. When available, the following aspects of rehabilitation were extracted: “prehabilitation” (exercises prior to surgery), bracing, weight-bearing status, range of motion, strength, modalities (ice, heat, electrical stimulation, etc.), plyometrics/proprioceptive exercises, return-to-sport criteria, and suggested ACL injury-prevention programs.
Two hundred and two unique articles were identified. Twenty-seven articles meeting inclusion criteria with extractible rehabilitation data were included. A table, categorized by differing orthopaedic intervention, was designed to detail the components and duration of the different aspects of rehabilitation. While there are substantial differences across protocols, several trends emerged, particularly regarding weight-bearing, bracing, range of motion, and strength training. Interestingly, we found that many current protocols are based on time frame alone rather than on functional milestones; of the fourteen unique articles that addressed return-to-sport criteria by specific orthopaedic intervention, seven were based on temporal progression whereas seven also involved achievement of physical milestones. In addition, only three of the eight articles that mentioned a future ACL injury-prevention plan described a formal prevention program.
We systematically identified, and subsequently outlined and compared, the current trends of the various components of pediatric-specific ACL rehabilitation protocols, categorized by orthopaedic intervention. Several protocols are based on time frames rather than milestones achieved, with newer protocols involving milestone-based progression. Newer protocols are also incorporating formal prevention programs. Just as skeletally immature patients require unique methods of operative fixation, so too do they require catered rehabilitation protocols. To effectively prevent re-rupture or contralateral injury, future research should focus on prospectively evaluating each component of the rehabilitation protocols described and return-to-sport criteria for young patients.
1The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, 34th Street and Civic Center Boulevard, Richard D. Wood Ambulatory Care Building, Second Floor, Philadelphia, PA 19104