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Recovery from ACL tear varies from athlete to athlete

May 07, 2019

The anterior cruciate ligament, typically referred to as the “ACL,” is one of the most important ligaments in your leg. It connects the thighbone (femur) to the shinbone (tibia) and helps stabilize the knee joint. An ACL tear also is also one of the most common injuries for athletes, generally occurring because of sudden stops, twists, or changes in direction.

You don’t need to be a professional basketball player to experience an ACL tear. Often, these are planting and pivoting injuries, not contact injuries. For example, they happen in skiing because the foot is in a fixed position, and the knee takes the rotational force.

If the ACL is partially torn, patients can try physical therapy rehabilitation and see how they recover. However, with a complete tear, people who want to return to full activity typically require an ACL reconstruction. The patellar tendon, quadriceps tendon or the hamstring tendons are often used to recreate the torn ligament. 

Recovery is personal

Molly Tatum, DO, is a fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon that works with the Sports Medicine team at Kettering Health Network. As a team physician for universities and professional sports, she’s seen her share of ACL injuries and says recovery is about time and patience.  

“Rehab is very personal and depends largely on the patient, but it’s individualized based upon the type of reconstruction performed and other associated procedures,” Dr. Tatum said. “On average, the typical recovery time for an ACL injury and repair, in order to return to contact sports, is at least six months. However, many people cannot return to full activity before nine-to-12 months.”

The first step in returning to full activity is beginning physical therapy as soon as possible after surgery, because that is critical to a fast, long-term recovery. “You have to start working on building up quadriceps, hip, and hamstring muscles. That will dictate when and how you can get back out to play,” she noted.

The mental is as important as the physical

Dr. Tatum has some advice for those recovering from an ACL tear:

  1. Try not to compare yourself to people who had similar injuries, because everyone is different. You may progress slower or faster than someone else, depending on the injury, meniscus or cartilage procedures performed, therapy techniques used, and personal effort put into recovery.
  2. Remember professional athletes have a team of people to get them back into the game. The average person probably does not have the same environment available, so try to focus on yourself.
  3. The psychological side of an ACL injury also can affect your recovery. A big part of rehabilitation is learning how to trust your knee again and becoming ready, both mentally and physically, to go back to the sport.
  4. In order to be cleared to return to full activity, your injured leg must recover to at least 90 percent of the strength of the non-injured leg. Be patient and stay with it.

While it is important to avoid re-injury to the leg, keep in mind recovery is also about preventing the other leg from experiencing the same issue. According to Dr. Tatum, patients have an increased chance of tearing the other ACL, as well as re-injury to the reconstructed ACL.

After physical therapy ends, it's often left up to athletes to regain their previous level of competition on their own. Kettering Health Network Sports Medicine has developed a program designed for athletes to bridge the gap between post-ACL surgery physical therapy and a return to full athletic competition. With a recent study showing 30 percent of ACL patients reinjure the knee or tear the ACL in the other knee in the first two years after surgery, it’s important to ensure both legs are properly strengthened before returning to your sport of choice.

If you’ve recently had ACL surgery and want a full return to your activity level, click here to schedule a consultation for the bridge program or call (937) 384-3827.