Preteen Beats ACL-Meniscus Tear With Grit and Great Care

Last fall, 12-year-old Aiden Ibe was sitting on the sidelines in a wheelchair, watching his 1974 Newark Football Club—one of the East Bay’s best club teams—win yet another game. After knee surgery for a serious injury, you would expect Aiden to be feeling sorry for himself. Instead, he was plotting his return to the soccer field.

“I was there to show that I was motivated and to keep up with my team,” Aiden says.

Earlier last year, Aiden fully tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and half of his meniscus during a rough scrimmage. Despite hearing a pop and feeling some pain in his knee, he continued playing. A magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) revealed the tears, and his pediatrician referred him to Stanford Medicine Children’s Health’s Children’s Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center.

“It was a sad moment to hear about Aiden’s injury, especially having watched him work his way through the ranks of the club and reach the top team,” says Michael Hannon, the Newark Football Club director.

A two-for-one injury

Aiden with Dr. Kevin Shea and Katie Harbacheck, ATC

Unfortunately, Aiden’s soccer injury resulted in not one but two torn structures in his knee.

“There are a number of ligaments that function to stabilize the knee. When you plant, shift, and change direction, you rely on these soft tissues to make sure your knee is stable. The ACL is one of these critical ligaments,” says Kevin Shea, MD, director of the Sports Medicine program at Stanford Children’s and Aiden’s doctor.

The menisci are curved bands of cartilage that sit under the knee bone. Imagine two horseshoes coming together on their ends. Their job is to act as shock absorbers and help stabilize the knee, which is critical when playing sports that demand a lot of footwork, like soccer. They are often injured together.

“About half of the time that we perform a meniscus repair, we also repair a torn ACL,” Dr. Shea adds.

Keeping growth plates intact for healthy bones throughout life

For Aiden, Dr. Shea performed a special outpatient surgery called an iliotibial band ACL reconstruction in September 2022. It’s a surgery just for children who are still growing that avoids the use of a drill, keeping growth plates—areas of cartilage at the end of bones that are soft, allowing for bones to lengthen—intact. Growth plates disappear when a person’s skeleton reaches its full size and height, and it’s important to protect them until then.

“Our success rate with this pediatric orthopedic surgery has been very good. Our results are comparable to the more traditional surgery we perform for older adolescents,” Dr. Shea says.

The Sports Medicine program at Stanford Children’s is known for its deep understanding of young elite athletes and how their bone growth relates to injury. One of the program’s specialties is meniscus repairs.

“Meniscus repairs are a primary focus. We have a specialized surgical team just to do them. Not all pediatric orthopedic centers perform a high volume of meniscus repairs,” Dr. Shea says.

The Children’s Orthopedic and Sports Medicine Center provides the latest treatments for a wide range of orthopedic and musculoskeletal conditions—from simple to highly complex. The center, with its six locations throughout the Bay Area, is a one-stop shop, with doctors, physical therapists, and athletic trainers all in one place.

An uptick in ACL injuries among kids

Historically, ACL injuries are more common in adults, yet pediatric orthopedic doctors are now seeing them more regularly in kids. At age 11, Aiden was deemed the youngest player in his soccer club to tear his ACL.

“We are seeing a big uptick of ACL tears in boys from ages 12 to 14 and in girls ages 11 to 12. The youngest child I’ve treated for an ACL tear was 5 years old,” Dr. Shea says. “It’s because youth athletes are playing more aggressively, running faster, and getting stronger than ever before.”

A yearlong recovery

A week after Aiden’s surgery, he began physical therapy to maintain strength. While Stanford Children’s has a large Orthopedic and Sports Physical Therapy program that specializes in young athletes, the Ibe family preferred seeing a physical therapist near home. It made sense, since Aiden went twice a week for months.

“We frequently partner with physical therapists around the region. We share our standard protocols of benchmarks that we like our patients to meet, and we work closely with outside therapists to meet them,” Dr. Shea says.

Aiden was motivated and determined to return to play, setting a goal of an upcoming tournament the following June—nine months after surgery. Typically, a double surgery like his demands a year of recovery.

“We really liked the challenge of getting Aiden back to playing before a year,” says Joseph Ibe, DC, Aiden’s dad. “Dr. Shea was open to our goal and allowed us to push the boundaries.”

To get better faster, Aiden didn’t stop at just physical therapy. He created his own self-imposed daily workout at home.

“I would do it after school. I started with 30 minutes on the stationary bike; then I would lift heavy weights for my quads, upper body, and core,” Aiden says. “My mom and dad helped me stay motivated.”

An advanced look at his body symmetry and strength

Around seven months post-surgery, Aiden visited the Stanford Children’s Motion Analysis & Sports Performance Laboratory, one of a handful of labs like it in Northern California. The lab combines cutting-edge technology and decades of experience to help young athletes recover safely, improve sports performance, and reduce future injury risk through biomechanical assessment using 3-D motion capture video and force plates.

“His results indicated that his knee strength and biomechanical symmetry were all above 90% of goal. He also has great self-perceived knee function and a high level of psychological readiness to return to sport,” says Chao-Jung Hsu, PT, PhD, lab supervisor and physical therapist.

Aiden was nearly ready to play with his team, but he still had some work to do to increase stability in certain areas to prevent a second ACL tear. He couldn’t play in the targeted tournament, but he accepted it with maturity and wisdom. The Ibe family was confident in the care they received, and they recommend Stanford Children’s 100% for sports injuries.

“The level of care from the whole team was outstanding,” says Avegail Ibe, Aiden’s mom.

On the sidelines but still in the game

Aiden didn’t just show up on the sidelines now and then. Through his entire recovery, he was there for every practice and every game, except when he had physical therapy.

“I’m so proud of the time and dedication Aiden has put in to get his health and strength back. He doesn’t let anything stop him,” Avegail says.

After the wheelchair, Aiden graduated to a brace, but he still couldn’t be active. Yet, he would haul out a stool to the sidelines and sit and watch his team play. Over time, he ran drills with his coaches or his dad on the sidelines during practices.

“It’s so hard to see your teammates train and achieve success and only be able to watch or play with no contact. Nevertheless, Aiden found a way to stay positive and motivated,” says one of his soccer coaches, Alonzo Lopez.

Aiden will likely be able to return to soccer fully in the fall. Joseph, his dad, is a chiropractor. He ensured that Aiden had chiropractic care, ultraviolet laser therapy to help reduce inflammation around the injury site, and cupping therapy throughout his recovery. The family also worked with a hypnotherapist to help mentally prepare Aiden for return to play.

A bright soccer-filled future 

Aiden can’t wait to get back into full action with his team, which just won the national finals and is the top team in its bracket in Northern California.

“I really have a good mindset and good discipline. I’m a very motivated person,” Aiden says. “I want to make the varsity team, and then I want to play professional soccer.”

He’s an inspiration for any athlete—no matter the age—to return to sport after injury. It’s easy to lose hope when you get seriously injured.

“Aiden is here to show other youth athletes that they don’t have to be scared of surgery, and they can have a high-performing sports career after injury,” Joseph says.

Learn more about ACL and meniscus tear services at Stanford Medicine Children’s Health >


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