In the first quarter of his first game as a New York Jet, quarterback Aaron Rodgers returns a pass. Buffalo Bills defensive end Leonard Floyd broke through the offensive line and wrapped around Rodgers, dragging him awkwardly to the ground. Rogers stood up, then collapsed on the turf, grimacing in pain.
Just like that, the Jets lost their biggest offseason acquisition to a torn Achilles tendon.
Accusations spread quickly. For some football players, Rodgers’ injury wasn’t due to his age — the quarterback will turn 40 in December 2023 — or simple bad luck.
This is the artificial turf at MetLife Stadium, where the Jets and New York Giants play home games.
Two days after the injury, the NFL Players Association called on the league to switch all playing fields to natural turf. For decades, athletes and coaches across all sports have blamed injuries such as sprains, strains and tendon ruptures on artificial turf.
As a physical therapist, researcher, and director of performance and sports science, I help elite athletes minimize the risk of injury and maximize performance. It’s always difficult to tell whether an injury could have been avoided had someone not been playing on a surface, especially since the strength, flexibility, and stiffness of muscles and tendons often play a more important role.
However, some studies have linked playing on artificial turf to risk of injury, although the risks tend to be limited to a few areas of the body.
The grass is always greener?
In 1966, Houston’s Astrodome became the first major sports venue to install artificial turf. It was originally called “ChemGrass,” but Monsanto, the company that invented it, later renamed its product “AstroTurf” because of its association with the Astrodome.
Not everyone is interested in cutting-edge rugs.
“Imagine – a [US]$45 million ballpark and 10-cent infield,” complained Chicago Cubs manager Leo Durocher. Players said the surface’s hardness was different from grass, making diving for catch a risky endeavor, and claimed their knees Aggravated by daily playing on harder surfaces.
The technology has come a long way since then. Today’s artificial turf systems feature shock-absorbing technology and glass-like fibers that essentially mimic natural grass. Proponents argue that they are low maintenance, cost-effective and more durable.
Some athletes disagree. Not only do they point out that artificial turf is still very different from playing on grass, but they also question the league’s commitment to safety rather than saving money.
So what does the evidence show?
There are studies looking at injury rates on different surfaces. A few have found that the overall incidence of football injuries is significantly higher on artificial surfaces.
However, Heath Gould, a former college football player and orthopedic resident, reviewed existing research and found that most found similar injury rates on natural turf compared to artificial turf. There are even some studies reporting higher overall injury rates on natural lawns.
Interestingly, the incidence appears to be related to specific body parts. There is a higher chance of foot and ankle injuries on artificial turf (both older and newer versions) than on natural turf. A recent meta-analysis found that overall injury rates in professional football are actually lower on artificial turf than on grass. The conclusion is that the risk of injury cannot be used as an argument against artificial turf when considering the best playing surfaces for football.
These findings suggest that while the importance of the playing surface needs to be considered when assessing injury risk, other factors must also be considered.
The human body is a kinetic chain made up of body parts connected together by joints. These joints need to work together to generate and dissipate the forces we need to move and perform physical activity.
However, any chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The muscles, ligaments, and tendons in our body play an important role in supporting these connections.
For athletes, the stakes are even higher because they are able to generate and absorb incredible amounts of force and power. They rely on the stiffness of muscles, tendons, and ligaments to harness the elastic energy they produce. Like a spring or rubber band, when a muscle is stretched, its stiffness helps generate elastic energy, which can then be used in conjunction with muscle contraction to help athletes run, jump, speed up, or slow down.
Research I have conducted with colleagues has found that when the stiffness or compliance of these tissues becomes too high, injuries can occur. In fact, we have found that Achilles tendon ruptures in professional basketball players tend to occur when the ankle flexes beyond the ability of the muscles and tendons to withstand the forces produced by certain movements.
Of course, there are several other factors that can affect injury: muscle strength, power, flexibility, size, and tissue elasticity.
The playing surface is another important aspect of the equation.
Consider the points of contact between athletes and their playing surface. This represents an additional link in the chain, as forces must be exchanged between the player and the ground.
As Isaac Newton said: “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.”
The playing surface must be strong enough to allow athletes to push, accelerate or jump. At the same time, the surface must be pliable enough to absorb force when the player lands or slows down. There is an optimal balance between the playing surface providing sufficient resistance and support while also absorbing force.
This raises the question of whether artificial turf is suitable and safe enough for athletes. The research may be a little fuzzy, but Rodgers’ Achilles tendon rupture did occur in a part of the body that has been linked to more injuries on artificial turf.
It’s encouraging to see gaming surface technology continue to evolve. But replicating nature is not easy.
Philip Anloague is an adjunct professor of physical therapy at the University of Dayton.
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.