Children's Hospital Colorado

Football: What is an AC Joint Injury?

Even worse than a dropped pass or a missed extra point is that few seconds in a football game when someone gets hurt and no one is quite sure how serious the injury might be. If that injured player is your child, the anxiety is that much stronger.

The American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons offers several football injury prevention recommendations to help keep your athlete as healthy as possible. However, shoulder injuries continue to be one of the most prevalent injuries sustained by football athletes.

What is an AC joint injury?

In football, it is highly possible that your child’s injury can be related to the shoulder. A common site of injury is the Acromioclavicular Joint (AC Joint) which is the joint where the collar bone meets the shoulder blade. (There are three bones that make up the AC joint and if the ligaments connecting these bones are damaged, it is considered a AC separation). If the upper arm or humerus pops out of the shoulder socket it is known as a dislocated shoulder.

How to prevent AC joint injuries

While AC joint injuries are most often the result of direct contact, and in football there isn’t any way to avoid some pretty serious direct contact, there are still things that can be done to prevent AC injuries. The most important prevention methods are:

  • Wearing the proper protective equipment correctly
  • Strengthening the shoulder and upper body
  • Learn to fall and react to direct hits
  • Don’t play until fully-recovered from previous shoulder injuries!

Recovering from an AC joint injury

Most AC injuries don’t require surgery and can be treated with therapy and rest. Both parts of recovery are essential, as returning to play too soon after an injury can put the athlete in danger for more significant injuries. Physicians classify AC injuries from a level 1 (least severe) to a level 6 (most severe).

Recovery time for a level 1 can be as little as a couple weeks, but a level 4 or higher may require surgery and take 2 to 3 months to fully recover. Again, the best way to prevent a serious (level 3 or higher) AC injury is to make sure any previous shoulder injuries are completely healed.

Along with teaching young athletes the skills of their position, it is important for coaches and athletic trainers to teach how to avoid and identify AC injuries. Just as important as squeezing an extra yard or two out of a run is staying healthy for the next play.

Play hard, but play healthy!

To find out more about general safety tips, check out more sports safety articles, or schedule an appointment at 720-777-6600. We are happy to consult with parents or referring providers before a patient is seen at Children’s Colorado.