Soccer and football seasons are well under way and the start of basketball and skiing will be here before we know it, which means now is the time to begin an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) injury prevention program.

The ACL is a ligament in the knee that keeps the knee stable. It is important for cutting and twisting in sports because it stops the tibia (shin bone) from shifting forward on the femur (thigh bone). With an estimated 250,000 people per year injuring their ACL and with girls 4 times more likely to hurt their ACL than boys each basketball game, this injury is a big problem.

Surgery is almost always needed to rebuild an ACL and an athlete will miss 6-12 months of sports depending on what else was damaged. But the problem does not stop there. Tearing the ACL can have a long-lasting impact on an athlete's health and well-being. Joint injuries, like anterior cruciate ligament tears, are one of the strongest risk factors for developing osteoarthritis.

Studies show that up to 50% of those with a diagnosed ACL tear, especially if the meniscus is involved, will develop osteoarthritis with associated pain and decreased function about 10-20 years after injury. That means a high school or middle school athlete is at risk for arthritis at a young age.

So how do you prevent or at least decrease your chances of an ACL tear? Start your ACL injury prevention program now. By doing exercises to strengthen the hips and legs, correcting improper landing technique, and fixing balance deficits, you can reduce your chance of tearing your ACL.

Studies show that six weeks is best to make changes to the way an at-risk person lands. Simple exercises done 15-20 minutes two-three times per week can make a big difference. Coaches can incorporate an ACL prevention program into regular warm-ups at the beginning of training sessions for extra benefit.

All athletes can benefit from these exercises because they reduce more than ACL injuries; they reduce ankle injuries common in basketball, too. Oh, and did I mention they increase performance, like vertical jump?

The programs make the most improvement in those that have the biggest risk for injury. So, how do you know your risk? Turns out there is a test called a landing error scoring system (LESS), in which a player is videotaped landing from a jump off a 30 cm box. A qualified health care provider can use this test to assess those at high risk for injury at the individual and team level.

ACL injury prevention programs like the ones found here are easy to use. For example, FIFA 11+, which is designed for soccer, has been shown to help basketball players, too. Sometimes, coaches and parents do not feel comfortable starting a program. This is where those of us in sports medicine can help. Sports medicine physicians have implemented ACL injury programs for colleges, high schools, and youth basketball clubs, and can work with any athlete to minimize their injury risk.Now is the time, so get a move on and protect that ACL.

Read more Sports Doc for Sports Medicine and Fitness.