A new publication in The American Journal of Sports Medicine used CHPs to evaluate the structural integrity leading to noncontact ACL failure as a result of strenuous repetitive impulsive athletic maneuvers. CHPs were used to visualize the molecular level damage to the collagen triple helix and show that repeated mechanical loading weakens the ACL. The figure shows the untested contralateral, unloaded knee (control knee) (A) and the mechanically tested knee (B). Their normalized signal intensities were compared as an intensity ratio in panel (C). A total of 7 paired-knees were tested. Great work that may prove useful in sports medicine for people just having fun all the way up to professional athletes!


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.

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.

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