Returning NFL Center Ryan Jensen to Play After Career-Threatening Knee Injuries

When Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen suffered six major injuries to his left knee on the second day of training camp in 2022, he didn’t think he’d ever be able to step on a football field again. Jensen tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL) and meniscus. He also broke bones in his shinbone just below the knee and in his knee cartilage.

The first five doctors Jensen saw all recommended surgery. But with treatment from K. Donald Shelbourne, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Shelbourne Knee Center, and a lot of hard work by Jensen, the 31-year-old was able to return to play for the Bucs in 172 days—without a single surgery.

"It was a pretty severe injury," Jensen said in an interview with BucsGameday, a Tampa Bay Buccaneers newsletter. "I was fortunate that I didn't have to have surgery."

Healing Without Surgery

Mike McCartney, Jensen’s agent, knew that surgery could result in complications that would end Jensen’s NFL career. McCartney turned to orthopedic surgeon Chad Prodromos, MD, who had treated McCartney with stem cells after failed back surgery.

Dr. Prodromos told McCartney that surgery would likely result in scarring, a loss of range of motion and overall poor results. He referred Jensen to Dr. Shelbourne, who has pioneered a research-backed, physical therapy treatment for many knee injuries.

Jensen first saw Dr. Shelbourne and Laura Bray-Prescott, PT/LATC/CATC, a physical therapist/athletic trainer at Shelbourne Knee Center, a few days after he was injured. “By having a surgeon and a physical therapist work together closely, we came up with the best treatment plan for Ryan,” says Bray-Prescott.

After reviewing the tests done in Florida and examining Jensen’s knee, Dr. Shelbourne agreed with Dr. Prodromos that Jensen could probably heal without surgery.

"Most surgeons only know how to fix people with surgery," says Dr. Shelbourne. "Our research shows that many knee injuries can heal without surgery."

Research conducted at Shelbourne Knee Center relevant to Jensen’s injuries shows that:

  • MCL and PCL tears can heal with immobilization and physical therapy
  • Many meniscus tears do not need surgery
  • The ACL only needs surgical repair if it has not healed after all the other injuries have been addressed

First Step: Regain Knee Extension

Before Dr. Shelbourne recommended that surgery could be delayed or possibly not needed, Jensen needed to be able to extend his injured knee as much as his other knee. He did this in one physical therapy session with Bray-Prescott.

Jensen’s MCL, PCL and ACL also needed to be stable. Dr. Shelbourne put Jensen in a leg cast for one week to heal the MCL tear. Jensen stayed in a hotel in Indiana, with his leg elevated above his heart to minimize swelling and walked only to use the bathroom.

When Jensen returned to Shelbourne Knee Center a week later, Dr. Shelbourne removed the cast and re-examined his knee. The MCL, PCL and ACL were all stable. Now, physical therapy at home was the best option.

Customized Home-Based PT Program

Jensen returned to Florida with a brace to support his leg and limit movement while walking, instructions for his physical therapy, an Ideal Knee and a yardstick. His customized physical therapy program focused on increasing his ability to straighten and bend his knee, then building strength in the muscles at the front of his thigh (quadriceps) and training on how to walk to reduce the risk of re-injury.

The Ideal Knee, designed by Dr. Shelbourne, makes it easier for patients to restore knee extension. Jensen used the yardstick to measure how much he could extend and bend his knee and swelling.

Jensen did most of his rehab with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers athletic trainer, using exercises from Shelbourne Knee Center and with weekly meetings with Bray-Prescott. He continued to have supervision with the team trainer, Bobby Slater, and teammate Tom Brady’s personal trainer, Alex Guerrero.

By mid-November, Jensen could extend both knees the same amount and bend his injured knee almost as much as his other knee. His quadriceps were strong. Now that his leg was stable, Dr. Prodromos did a stem cell infusion to strengthen Jensen’s ligaments and accelerate healing.

A Return to Play 8 Months Ahead of Schedule

Dr. Shelbourne and Dr. Prodromos had told Jensen that if all went well, he should be able to return to play in September 2023. Instead, Jensen was back on the field for the playoffs in January 2023.

"Some call trying to come back off of a severe injury dumb but I'm a football player and football players play football," Jensen told BucsGameday.