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The risks of playing on artificial turf

Image by Brett Coomer, Houston Chronicle

Artificial turf has been around for a long time, dating its first use back to 1966. It is a surface of synthetic fibers meant to have the look of natural grass. While a turf field is slightly more expensive to install it is significantly cheaper to maintain than real grass. Artificial turf companies have called it the future of sports surfacing.

Over the years artificial turf has become a popular choice for sports fields across the country, but it has become increasingly controversial. The surface was initially praised for its durability and minimal expense for upkeep. However, the novelty was soon replaced by skepticism and was a frequent subject of controversy.

A reason for the controversy includes the injury risk among athletes using these fields. Knee and ankle injuries occur more frequently on turf than grass. These findings are present across different sports and from the high school to professional levels.

Image by Ronald Martinez, Getty Images

Injury Risk

Lower-extremity injuries, in particular knee and ankle injuries, more commonly occur on artificial turf in comparison to natural grass. Extreme high levels of force and rotation is being put onto the playing surfaces. Grass will eventually give, which often releases the cleat prior to reaching an injurious load. On synthetic surfaces, there is less give, meaning our feet, ankles, and knees absorb the force, which makes injury more likely to follow. Artificial turf is significantly harder on an athlete's body than natural grass.

Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard suffered from a non-contact injury while jogging down the turf field at MetLife Stadium. He tore his left anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) cutting the rest of his season short. This followed Odell Beckham Jr. suffering the same injury during the Super Bowl played at SoFi Stadium, which also deploys artificial turf. These injuries generally require ACL reconstructive surgery if a player wants to get back to playing.

The NFL commissioned a study to analyze lower-extremity injuries reported during games. The NFL’s injury data indicates that players have a 28 percent higher rate of non-contact lower extremity injuries when playing on artificial turf. Players have a 32 percent higher chance of sustaining a non-contact knee injury and a 69 percent higher chance of sustaining non-contact foot and ankle injuries when playing on turf.

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