Every now and then in clinic you come across an injury that doesn’t quite fit “the norm” in terms of its recovery and management. I know every injury should be considered unique and every individual managed differently, but I thought I would share the management of this particular injury as it did prove tricky, we did fail a couple of times but eventually we got it just right.
This case study revolves around an 18 year old central midfielder, skeletally mature (no increase in height throughout the year / evident secondary sexual features) with a regular playing and training history prior to this injury. The presentation started in the autumn, after a complete pre-season and a good few weeks of competitive season underway. The player was in & out of training with a niggling groin / quad but with nothing substantial showing in assessment (the benefit of hindsight would be a very good money earner for any clinician that could harness it and set up a course!)
Towards the end of an under 21 game, the player was visibly struggling with pain at the top of his thigh, unable to sprint or strike a ball but 3 subs had been made, so he was inevitably staying on the pitch. At the end of the game, there was pain on palpation of the proximal rectus femoris and sartorious region. At this stage, there was nothing more to assess – there was no point, we would only aggravate something without actually learning too much more. He presented the next morning with visible swelling in a small pocket of proximal thigh, palpable crepitus and pain with straight leg raise at 20 degrees.
Review of anatomy
The rectus femoris is a long fusiform muscle with TWO proximal attachments. The Direct Head attaches to the AIIS and Indirect Head attaches to the superior ace tabular ridge and the joint capsule. It has a long musculotendinous junction, as such can execute high velocity shortening as well as coping with significant length changes – remember it is a two joint muscle crossing both the hip and knee, with an action like kicking it must cope with hip extension coupled with knee extension during the pull-back of the kick, so both ends of the muscle are undergoing an eccentric load (Figure 1). The muscle structure itself is made up of mostly type II fibres so this high eccentric load makes the muscle quite prone to injury (Mendiguchia et al 2013 source).
“Bulls eye lesion”
The term “Bulls eye lesion” was coined by Hughes (1995 source) following the presentation of injury on MRI (Figure 2). The high signal signs around the tear of proximal injuries. Occasionally this causes a pseudocyst, thought to be the serous fluid in the haematoma.
Predisposing factors to a proximal tear include fatigue, insufficient warm up and previous injury. From this case, we know that the pain started at the end of the game with the player in a fatigued state, and there was a history of niggling pain on and off for a couple of weeks.
The initial management of this injury was relatively routine, revolving around the POLICE guidelines (see Cryotherapy Blog). By day 2/3 we were addressing pelvic control exercises & posterior chain assessments. By day 5 we could achieve pain free stretching of the hip flexors and were using “Compex” to achieve isometric contractions of the quad while the player did upper body exercises. After day 7 we were able to begin loading through a pain free range, working on co-contractions and concentric contractions of the quad.
To Speed up, you must be able to slow down – Bill Knowles
In the early-mid stages of rehab, we began working on movement patterns but at a painfully slow speed. Using the Bill Knowles mantra above, we progressed though different ranges of box step ups at slow pace to elicit a co-contraction of quads, hamstring and glutes (Figure 3). We slowly lowered the player through a Bulgarian split squat (Figure 4) to work on stability through range and we did some bridging variations (anti-rotational core) to encourage isometric control of the pelvis (Figure 5 – excuse the size 11 shoes taking up most of the picture!!).
By adding speed to the high box step up, we were able to switch the demand of the quadriceps to an eccentric action as the hip extends from a flexed position and the pelvis rapidly comes forward. We felt confident adding this eccentric component after we had cleared the player at a decent weight using the cable machine and a jacket to work though some deceleration work on the hip and knee (Figure 6).
The Bulgarian split squat was advanced by adding a knee drive at the top the squat, taking the back leg from a position of full hip extension through into hip flexion, a rapid concentric action. Following the model of exercise progression and regression (source) we added weight, removed the concentric component and decreased the speed again before building back up in a now weighted position.
The later stage of rehabilitation saw the player undertake more field based conditioning, working under fatigue whilst completing technical drills and building up his range of passing and shooting, all the while maintaining his gym program to supplement his rehab. This late stage rehab combined the expertise of the physiotherapy department, working alongside the strength and conditioning coach to discuss reps and sets of all drills and help periodise the weeks for the player and design the field based conditioning sessions; the sports science department was able to use GPS for all outdoor drills to help monitor load and provide up to date feedback on key information, in this case monitoring the accelerations and decelerations for the player in a fatigued state.
It was important that the stress elicited in this late stage was in line with the rest of the squad mid-competition. Rob Swire and Stijn Vandenbroucke (source) explain the importance of rehab being harder than the team training. This is because we have control over rehab, but no control of training so we must be confident that player won’t break down again in training!
The player returned just under 8 weeks later. He continued his gym program for another 4 weeks after his return to training and (touch wood) has had no recurrence of this injury since.
Knowing what I know now, I would be more cautious of this nondescript pain around the proximal thigh. The indirect head runs quite deep and typically presents as a gradual onset. The niggle the player was displaying a few weeks before was probably a worsening of this small tear, that when fatigued and put under a double eccentric load such as kicking or sprinting, was bound to “give” at some point.
I’m sure that reading this back, it seems pretty obvious that there was something wrong with the player initially. Again, another lesson learnt from this relates to the players age. He had not had a soft tissue injury prior to this, so his subjective history was vague and typically teenager-ish. Its important to remember that young players and professionals don’t necessarily understand their own body. If they play things down, its important that we as clinicians double check everything before we clear them and not just rely on their feedback alone.
I hope you find my reflections useful
Yours in sport