BACKGROUND: Articular cartilage injury in the athlete's knee presents a difficult clinical challenge. Despite the importance of returning injured athletes to sports, information is limited on whether full sports participation can be successfully achieved after articular cartilage repair in the knee. HYPOTHESIS: Systematic analysis of athletic participation after articular cartilage repair will demonstrate the efficacy of joint surface restoration in high-demand patients and help to optimize outcomes in athletes with articular cartilage injury of the knee. STUDY DESIGN: Systematic review. METHODS: A comprehensive literature review of original studies was performed to provide information about athletic participation after articular cartilage repair. The athlete's ability to perform sports postoperatively was assessed by activity outcome scores, rate of return to sport, timing of the return, level of postoperative sports participation, and the continuation of athletic activity over time. RESULTS: Twenty studies describing 1363 patients were included in the review, with an average follow-up of 42 months. Return to sports was possible in 73% overall, with highest return rates after osteochondral autograft transplantation. Time to return to sports varied between 7 and 18 months, depending on the cartilage repair technique. Initial return to sports at the preinjury level was possible in 68% and did not significantly vary between surgical techniques. Continued sports participation at the preinjury level was possible in 65%, with the best durability after autologous chondrocyte transplantation. Several factors affected the ability to return to sport: athlete's age, preoperative duration of symptoms, level of play, lesion size, and repair tissue morphology. CONCLUSION: Articular cartilage repair in the athletic population allows for a high rate of return to sports, often at the preinjury level. Return to sports participation is influenced by several independent factors. The findings provide pertinent information that is helpful for the clinical decision-making process and for the management of the athlete's postoperative expectations
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