Your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is a primary ligament in your knee joint, connecting your thigh bone (femur) to your shin bone (tibia) and helping to keep your knee strong and stable. Without a healthy ACL, your knee becomes weak and unstable — and you’ll be left sitting on the sidelines.
Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a recreational outdoors enthusiast, a torn ACL can be a real bummer. It may feel like you’ll never be active again. Fortunately, that’s not the case. With the help of an orthopedic expert like Dr. James Lee, Jr. at Orange Orthopaedic Associates, it’s possible to enjoy your favorite activities again.
From Dr. Lee, here are three big things to keep in mind as you begin your post-ACL tear journey.
1. You may not even need surgery.
First things first: Dr. Lee determines whether your ACL tear is complete or partial. A complete tear almost always requires surgery, but partial tears usually don’t. If you have a partial ACL tear, you may improve with nonsurgical treatment methods such as physical therapy.
Dr. Lee grades ACL tears by severity. A grade 1 tear means that your ACL became overstretched, but not torn. As long as your knee retained its stability, you probably won’t need surgery for a grade 1 tear.
A grade 2 tear means that your ACL is partially damaged and your knee shows some instability. Surgery is often, but not always, required for grade 2 tears.
The most severe type, a grade 3 tear, means that your ACL is completely torn and your knee is heavily damaged. Grade 3 tears almost always require surgery.
2. It’s a long — but hopeful — road.
Even if you do need surgery to reconstruct your ACL, new methods and technologies in orthopedic surgery have raised the bar when it comes to returning to activities after an ACL tear. The ultimate goal is to regain both stability and flexibility in your knee — and get you back on the field, court, or trails without pain.
Your road to recovery depends on how severe your injury was, but you can expect some general milestones:
- Slowly wean off crutches and begin to bear your body weight as tolerated
- Work toward fully extending your knee
- Begin passive knee extension exercises
- Begin straight-leg exercises
- Practice isometric contractions in your quadriceps muscles
- Complete a half squat
- Complete a partial lunge
- Begin non-impact exercises, such as stationary cycling or water exercises
- Begin knee flexion exercises
- Complete single-leg exercises
- Master lateral exercises (like sidestepping)
- Begin light jogging
- Finally, get back to the activities you love (with caution)
3. Caution is key.
Even after you’re cleared to return to activity by Dr. Lee and your physical therapist, exercise caution in the first weeks and months following your ACL rehabilitation. Even if you feel just fine, you stand the risk of re-injuring your ACL, especially in those vulnerable first couple of months.
Ease back into your activities, and make it a point to pay close attention to any pain or even extremely minor symptoms, and tell Dr. Lee and your physical therapist what’s going on.
Be mindful of emotional symptoms, too. Returning to activity after a serious injury can feel discouraging at times, so remember to take it easy on yourself. You made it this far, after all!
If you think you may have torn your ACL, or just need help managing a prior injury, request an appointment online or call our clinic in West Orange, New Jersey.