A torn ACL is a knee injury that is common in athletes. In fact, any avid sports fan groans when someone from his or her favorite team suffers this injury. It usually means that the athlete is out for the rest of the season.
But ACL tears aren’t limited to professional athletes. Just about any active person can land or turn the wrong way and feel that telltale “pop” associated with a torn ACL. The severity of this injury varies, just as the best treatment options for each person will vary. So, it is best to consult with a doctor if you believe you tore your ACL.
As you probably know, the knee is responsible for several lower body movements. It functions to bend and straighten the leg, making walking, jumping, running, sitting, and standing possible. The knee joint serves as a hinge to the main bones of the leg. It also allows for some rotation during movement.
The knee connects the femur (thighbone) and tibia (shinbone) at the patella (kneecap). The rounded ends of the femur line up with the tibia. The four ligaments connecting these bones include the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). Each ligament stabilizes the knee during different movements. In addition, the quadriceps and hamstrings provide added knee stability.
The ACL attaches to the shin and thighbone, preventing the shin from moving too far forward. It also prevents the knee from bending backward and excessive inward rotation of the shin.
Just about anyone can suffer from an ACL injury. Some common risk factors include:
Find your condition with our 2-minute Condition Checker.
If you experienced an ACL tear, you can expect to exhibit at least some of these symptoms:
These symptoms typically occur right after a torn ACL and can be traced back to a specific movement or trauma. This helps rule out other conditions such as knee osteoarthritis.
In addition, other ligaments of the knee could be damaged during an ACL injury. This may cause additional symptoms like knee locking.
Even without treatment, the pain and swelling can gradually go away after several weeks. Unfortunately, knee instability usually persists. This may make it difficult to walk, stand, climb stairs, and participate in physical activities.
Doctors or orthopedic surgeons can usually diagnose an ACL injury by interviewing the patient and performing a physical exam. The doctor will ask you to describe your pain, when it started, and how it’s affecting your lifestyle.
From there, the doctor conducts a physical exam to check for any tenderness, swelling, lost range of motion, or points of pain. The doctor often compares the differences in your injured knee to the healthy one.
In many cases, the doctor performs the Lachman test to diagnose ACL tears. During this test, the patient lies on his or her back, relaxing the affected leg. The doctor will bend the injured leg and gently pull forward on the calf. This helps to determine the location of the injury by assessing the “endpoint” of leg movement.
Doctors may also prescribe diagnostic imaging such as x-rays or MRIs. These tests also help to confirm an ACL tear and rule out other causes.
A doctor can assess the severity of your injury during a physical examination and diagnostic imaging. There are three classifications of anterior cruciate ligament injuries based on the damage observed. These include:
Unfortunately, in many cases, ACL injuries are a complete tear requiring an orthopedic surgeon’s care.
While it is impossible to completely prevent a torn ACL, there are some things you can do to protect your knee during sports.
Discover which treatment options are right for you with our Treatment Finder.
After a doctor or orthopedic surgeon determines the severity of the ACL injury, there are two main treatments used to help repair the damage and restore stability to the knee.
Doctors prescribe nonsurgical treatments in less severe cases. You may be a good candidate for nonsurgical treatment if you have:
Nonsurgical treatments involve progressive physical therapy and rehabilitation. This helps the knee to regain stability and return to an almost normal state. Some may benefit from a hinged knee brace to maintain stability and prevent further injury.
Many people who choose not to get surgery may be at risk for additional knee injuries depending on their lifestyles.
In many cases, knee surgery is recommended for a torn ACL. Instead of suturing the damaged ligament, which isn’t very effective for complete recovery, the surgeon replaces it with a segment of another tendon.
The surgery begins with a small incision at the knee. The surgeon uses a tiny camera to view the joint on a nearby screen—known as a knee arthroscopy.
During ACL reconstruction, the surgeon removes the damaged ligament. Then he completes a tendon autograft. This procedure uses a muscle tendon from another area of the body, such as the patellar tendon, as a replacement for the ACL. The surgeon will drill small sockets into you shin and thighbone to help position the graft. It is then held in place with screws or other equipment.
In most cases, you can go home the same day after recovering from the anesthesia. The orthopedic surgeon provides detailed instructions on how to protect and care for your knee.
Although the surgery is minimally invasive, it often requires a long recovery period for the best outcomes. After the surgery, you will feel some pain. This is completely normal and part of the healing process. Your doctor will prescribe medications to help manage the pain.
Expect four to seven months of physical therapy to increase range of motion, strength, and stability. In addition, completing prescribed exercises at home is also helpful.
Make sure you follow through with all the prescribed therapy for a quicker recovery time and less chance of re-injuring the area. Many athletes can expect to return to their favorite sports in eight to twelve months.
If you’re motivated to get back to your favorite sports and activities even quicker, NJ Spine & Orthopedic can help. We use state-of-the-art equipment to make smaller incisions and operate with better precision. This means you can enjoy shorter recovery times and longer lasting results.
Schedule a consultation today. Our experienced orthopedic surgeons will listen to you and address any questions and concerns. If you have any previous MRIs, we will review them for free. We know you want to get back to doing what you love, so let NJ Spine & Orthopedic help you!
Determine your eligibility with our Candidacy Verification.