New Technique for ACL Reconstruction Keeps Football Player in the Game

It can happen in almost any sport. For Khyon Gillespie, it was football. He was 12 years old and already an up-and-coming football prodigy. His whole life revolved around the sport, along with his plans for the future. But an instant of twisting the wrong way in a game had left him with a torn ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, one of the central ligaments that holds the knee together. Khyon was devastated.

“He was having nightmares about not playing and crying,” his mother, Nahkia, said. He knew of professional football players who were permanently sidelined by a torn ACL, and he thought his dream of being a football player was over. Until recently, it would have been.

A torn ACL can’t simply be sewn back together again; it has to be replaced with other tendon or ligament tissue. The surgeon drills vertical holes into the ends of the patient’s femur and tibia, feeds the new tendon into those holes, and anchors each end with screws.

That’s the adult approach, but it cannot be used in young children, especially those in early adolescence, as their skeletons are still growing. Each young bone has a growth plate at its end that generates new bone tissue until it hardens into bone itself as the body stops growing.

Physeal-Sparing Technique

But surgeons at Connecticut Children’s Sports Medicine had an option for him: a relatively new surgical technique called physeal-sparing ACL reconstruction. There are a number of different versions of this technique, corresponding to different stages of bone growth. First, the torn ligament was removed, and part of Khyon’s hamstring tendon was harvested to replace it. The tendon was wrapped around itself several times, like braiding a rope for extra strength, then inserted into holes carefully drilled above Khyon’s growth plate, and the tendon was passed across the protected area and secured.

Physeal-sparing techniques are still relatively new, having developed over the past five or 10 years, and in some parts of the country are not widely used. That’s partly because it requires extra training and skills, and it involves more of an investment in following patients long term.

In Khyon’s case, following him is an exciting process. Now 17, he is entering his senior year at Capital Preparatory Magnet School in Hartford and is a running back for the school’s football team. Last season, he scored 25 touchdowns and had 1,750 yards rushing, more than 10 times the national average—an astonishing accomplishment for an appreciative young man.

“The operation didn’t just heal me,” Khyon said. “It made me better, stronger and faster.”

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