ACL tears are one of the most common forms of knee injuries, especially for athletes involved in high-risk sports like basketball, skiing and football. Recovering from an ACL injury can be a very difficult and long journey. In this article we will examine the entire process, from injury through recovery, and discuss what an individual who has recently sustained an ACL tear can expect during each phase along the way to help make the recovery process more manageable.
Causes of ACL Tears
ACL tears often are the result of a sudden change in direction, such as pivoting, cutting, awkward landings or sidestepping moves made in sports like basketball, skiing or football. Of course an ACL tear can also occur in non-sports settings as well.
The anterior cruciate ligament (or ACL) is one of the four major ligaments in the knee that connect the tibia and femur bones that help form the knee joint. Torn ligaments, such as the ACL, cause the knee to be unstable.
Immediately following the injury, the patient usually will experience some pain as well as swelling and instability in the knee. To properly diagnose an ACL tear, a physician will usually order either x-rays or an MRI to determine the extent of the injury.
There are both surgical and non-surgical treatment options available for ACL tears. The best form of treatment will largely depend on the person’s activity level and the severity of the injury. For those who live fairly sedentary lifestyles non-surgical treatment may be an option, depending on how serious the injury is. Children may also need to forgo surgery because there is a risk of plate damage since their young bodies are still growing.
A non-surgical treatment program will involve extensive physical therapy and education. The patient may also wear a hinged knee brace to help with instability and prevent further injury.
For serious athletes and those with physically demanding jobs or active lifestyles, surgery is most likely the best option. For full ACL tears or combined injuries, surgery is also usually recommended.
ACL Reconstructive Surgery
Surgical treatment of a torn ACL involves reconstructive surgery where the damaged ACL is replaced with a graft made from tendon. The most common grafts are from a patellar tendon, hamstring tendon, or tendon from a cadaver. ACL reconstruction surgery does have a high success rate. Before undergoing surgery, the patient may be sent to do some physical therapy for a few days or weeks first.
Recovery from Surgery
After surgery, the patient will normally spend a few days lay in bed to recover. Once out of bed, he or she will most likely will be using crutches for a few weeks and after that may wear a functional hinged post-op knee brace.
Rehabilitation and Recovery
Rehabilitation usually starts several days after surgery. The main focus is on strength and mobility. The major goals are to strengthen the damaged knee and muscles surrounding the knee, such as the quadriceps muscle, as well as work on restoring range of motion and stability.
Physical therapy does involve doing lots of repetitive exercises and does require plenty of determination and focus. Serious athletes will spend almost every day, or at least several times a week, in the training room working on strengthening their knee. It is very important that the patient is willing to spend several months of hard work to restore their knee to full strength.
The rehabilitation process will generally last from six to nine months before an athlete is cleared to play contact sports again. The physician and trainer may also suggest that the patient wear a knee ACL ligament brace while playing to help protect and provide stability to the knee.
ACL reconstruction surgery does have a high success rate. A full recovery mostly depends on the severity of the patient’s injury and the dedication put into the rehabilitation process. It may take six months to a full year and a lot of hard work to regain full strength, but it is possible to recover from an ACL tear.
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