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The Dreaded ACL Tear… A Sports-Ending Injury or Minor Set-Back?

An ACL injury can be a devastating blow to an athlete or active person. While this type of injury used to end sports careers, thanks to advancements in arthroscopic ACL surgery and patients’ willingness to conduct proper rehabilitation and physical therapy, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, studies show that most athletes return to their sport following surgery and thorough rehabilitation. Following is a short Q&A, which explains how the ACL works, what happens when it is injured, how it’s treated and the fastest – and best – way to get back to normal following surgery.

What is the ACL?

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the four major ligaments in the knee that connect the femur to the tibia. It is responsible for front-to-back and rotational stability. Given the important role it plays in the overall function of the knee, it is one of the most commonly injured ligaments.

Each year, approximately 400,000 people tear their ACLs in the United States. And women have a higher risk of suffering an ACL injury than men.

How does the ACL tear?

ACL tears generally occur with a sudden hyper-extension – bending or twisting of the knee. This can occur in sports or activity that involves quick changes in direction, sudden stops or a lot of jumping. A hit to the knee in contact sports can also cause an ACL tear. ACL injuries can happen to anyone – high-level soccer and football players; recreational hikers, skiers and workout enthusiasts; or even someone who is simply coming down their stairs and misses a step.

When an ACL injury occurs, your knee may buckle and you may feel a popping sensation. Swelling, instability, limited movement and pain are key indicators that something is not right. The injury can be mild to severe, depending on the type of tear.

How do you treat a torn ACL?

Depending on the extent of your injury, there are two approaches to treatment:

  • Non-surgical treatment, including significant physical therapy / rehab
  • ACL surgery to reconstruct the ACL

People who are not very active may decide to take the non-surgical approach to treatment. This involves a detailed physical therapy program to try and prevent further instability symptoms in their knee, such as buckling or giving-way. For patients who engage in only low-demand activities, this may yield acceptable results.

However, most active people opt for ACL surgery to repair the knee and return to their daily activity in a safe and fairly quick manner. During ACL surgery (also known as an ACL repair), the surgeon removes the damaged ligament and replaces it with a segment of a tendon (from another part of the knee or from a donor) known as a graft.

Following surgery, the patient will undergo a rehabilitation/physical therapy program. Click here to check out my comprehensive ACL Rehab Video Series. Successful ACL reconstruction paired with a solid rehab program can usually restore stability and full function to the knee.

How long is the recovery process?

While you will go home the same day as your surgery, the true recovery process from ACL surgery is intense. From surgery through rehabilitation, the recovery process can take six months or more, according to most ACL surgeons. Just remember, if you are serious with your rehab, you will be pleased with the results.

Can you prevent ACL tears?

ACL prevention programs have been shown to reduce ACL injury rates by 75-80 percent. Check out my ACL Injury Prevention Program, which was adapted from “The PEP Program” developed by Bert Mandelbaum, MD (Santa Monica Sports Medicine Research Foundation). This exercise program is designed and proven to reduce the rate of ACL injuries in young athletes. Conduct these exercises 3-4 times per week prior to practice or other workout activities. It typically takes 15 minutes to complete.

Dr. Matthew Boes (knee surgeon) and his team are committed to providing patients with unparalleled, first-rate care when it comes to the diagnosis treatment of knee injuries and conditions. Whether you are an athlete who requires reconstructive knee surgery due to a sports injury or you are an active adult needing total knee replacement, our team is dedicated to returning you to full, pain-free function.


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