An anterior cruciate ligament failure mechanism

Junjie Chen, Jinhee Kim, Wenhao Shao, Stephen H. Schlecht, So Young Baek, Alexis K. Jones, Taeyong Ahn, James A. Ashton-Miller, Mark M. Banaszak Holl, Edward M. Wojtys

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8 Citations (Scopus)


© 2019 The Author(s). Background: Nearly three-quarters of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries occur as “noncontact” failures from routine athletic maneuvers. Recent in vitro studies revealed that repetitive strenuous submaximal knee loading known to especially strain the ACL can lead to its fatigue failure, often at the ACL femoral enthesis. Hypothesis: ACL failure can be caused by accumulated tissue fatigue damage: specifically, chemical and structural evidence of this fatigue process will be found at the femoral enthesis of ACLs from tested cadaveric knees, as well as in ACL explants removed from patients undergoing ACL reconstruction. Study Design: Controlled laboratory study. Methods: One knee from each of 7 pairs of adult cadaveric knees were repetitively loaded under 4 times–body weight simulated pivot landings known to strain the ACL submaximally while the contralateral, unloaded knee was used as a comparison. The chemical and structural changes associated with this repetitive loading were characterized at the ACL femoral enthesis at multiple hierarchical collagen levels by employing atomic force microscopy (AFM), AFM–infrared spectroscopy, molecular targeting with a fluorescently labeled collagen hybridizing peptide, and second harmonic imaging microscopy. Explants from ACL femoral entheses from the injured knee of 5 patients with noncontact ACL failure were also characterized via similar methods. Results: AFM–infrared spectroscopy and collagen hybridizing peptide binding indicate that the characteristic molecular damage was an unraveling of the collagen molecular triple helix. AFM detected disruption of collagen fibrils in the forms of reduced topographical surface thickness and the induction of ~30- to 100-nm voids in the collagen fibril matrix for mechanically tested samples. Second harmonic imaging microscopy detected the induction of ~10- to 100-µm regions where the noncentrosymmetric structure of collagen had been disrupted. These mechanically induced changes, ranging from molecular to microscale disruption of normal collagen structure, represent a previously unreported aspect of tissue fatigue damage in noncontact ACL failure. Confirmatory evidence came from the explants of 5 patients undergoing ACL reconstruction, which exhibited the same pattern of molecular, nanoscale, and microscale structural damage detected in the mechanically tested cadaveric samples. Conclusion: The authors found evidence of accumulated damage to collagen fibrils and fibers at the ACL femoral enthesis at the time of surgery for noncontact ACL failure. This tissue damage was similar to that found in donor knees subjected in vitro to repetitive 4 times–body weight impulsive 3-dimensional loading known to cause a fatigue failure of the ACL. Clinical Relevance: These findings suggest that some ACL injuries may be due to an exacerbation of preexisting hierarchical tissue damage from activities known to place larger-than-normal loads on the ACL. Too rapid an increase in these activities could cause ACL tissue damage to accumulate across length scales, thereby affecting ACL structural integrity before it has time to repair. Prevention necessitates an understanding of how ACL loading magnitude and frequency are anabolic, neutral, or catabolic to the ligament.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2067-2076
Number of pages10
JournalThe American Journal of Sports Medicine
Issue number9
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jul 2019


  • anterior cruciate ligament
  • atomic force microscopy
  • femoral enthesis
  • in vitro
  • in vivo
  • infrared spectroscopy
  • second harmonic imaging
  • submicroscopic damage
  • tissue fatigue damage

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