A relatively common athletic injury, a torn ACL can put an abrupt end to your athletic endeavors for this season and possibly the next.
Commonly referred to as the ACL, your anterior cruciate ligament is found inside your knees and connects your thighbone (femur) to your shinbone (tibia). When this tissue is torn, you become the victim of an ACL injury. While they can occur at nearly any time, ACL injuries typically come about while playing sports that require sudden stops, pivots, and direction changes such as soccer, basketball, football, and tennis. Your highest risk for ACL injury is when your foot is firm on the ground as your knee sharply twists to one side or your knee takes a direct hit from someone else’s knee, a goal post, or another hard object.
Following an ACL injury, you may be able to perform normal activities, but returning to a sport may require surgery. And after your surgery, it can take up to nine months for your ACL injury to heal completely.
So how do you know if you’ve torn your ACL, how to you treat it, and can an ACL injury be prevented?
The Painful Pop!
You may hear a loud popping sound in your knee when your ACL tears. The pain and swelling that follows can be just as severe as the sound is loud. You may feel like your knee is giving out when you try to bear any weight on your leg, making it difficult to walk.
If you suspect an ACL injury, an immediate trip to your doctor is recommended.
Your doctor may be able to diagnose your injury with only a physical examination, but you should be prepared for a variety of tests to determine the severity of the injury and to rule out other possible causes for the pain and swelling. An X-ray will show if any nearby bones are fractured; an MRI will determine the extent of the injury and whether any other areas are torn or damaged; and an ultrasound can locate other injuries in the ligaments, muscles, and tendons in your knee. In the event your doctor needs a better look, you may require arthroscopy. With this minimally invasive procedure, a tiny scope is inserted into your knee through a small incision, giving your physician a clear view of the damage and even allowing repair on the spot.
Surgery or No Surgery?
How bad is the tear? Do you really want to play your sport again? Answers to these questions will determine whether surgery is necessary to replace your torn ligament. Initial treatment focuses on reducing pain and swelling and starts with good-old RICE: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Whether or not you undergo surgery, your muscles will need rehabilitation therapy and strength training exercises to regain their normal range of motion and abilities.
Surgery to repair a torn ACL is usually performed arthroscopically, your damaged ligament being completely replaced with an uninjured tendon in your leg. Occasionally, internal bleeding accompanies an ACL injury. To correct this problem, a needle is inserted in the knee and excess fluid is removed.
Sounds bad, doesn’t it? Fortunately, you can reduce your risk of an ACL injury by following some basic tips on conditioning and proper technique. Strength and stability exercises, plyometric exercises, being in good aerobic shape, jump training, and being aware of ACL injury risks will reduce your chance for injury.
If you participate in a sport that requires frequent jumping, learn how to land in a safe manner and don’t land with one or both knees pointed inward. And while it may help in other ways, wearing a knee brace won’t prevent an ACL injury.