It isn’t just athletes who tear their ACLs, one of the most common knee injuries in sports. It can happen to anyone, with something as simple as misjudging a step or running after your kids.
Your ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, connects your thigh bone to your shin bone and is responsible for your knee’s stability. Cutting and pivoting sports such as basketball, downhill skiing, running, tennis and soccer increase the chances that you may sustain this injury.
In some instances, you cannot entirely prevent an ACL tear, but you can minimize your risk. The more you build core, hip and pelvic strength, the better your body can support itself and avoid injury.
Your ACL can tear when your knee gives way. You will likely:
- Feel a pop in your knee
- Experience sudden pain and discomfort
- Notice swelling around your knee
Anyone can tear their ACL, but the injury happens more often in athletes, especially with sports that require a lot of starting and stopping.
What To Do When It Happens
A torn ACL is uncomfortable, but it may not be an emergency. Ideally, you’ll want to see your primary care provider within 24 to 48 hours. If a sports trainer is available at the time of injury, by all means, have them examine the injury.
When you see your primary care doctor, they will do a physical exam and order imaging to see what’s going on with your ACL.
If you have torn your ACL, surgery is the typical next step, especially for young people, anyone with an active lifestyle and especially athletes.
You will not likely undergo surgery if:
- You have good surrounding muscle control. In this case, you may just need to modify your activity.
- If you are in your 60s or 70s and perhaps will not heal quickly from surgery, your doctor may suggest another course of treatment.
What Recovery Looks Like
For most people who opt for ACL surgery, it’s recommended to wait a year before returning to the full level of activity you were at before the injury occurred. Some evidence suggests you should wait even longer.
During that year, you will work with a rehabilitation center to complete rehab therapy. These exercises will help you regain a full range of motion as well as muscle strength. You most likely will not be running, but you will be engaging in exercise and activity.
Rehabilitation also helps you mentally. Since your knee gave out, you’re most likely hesitant to rely on it again. You have to build confidence before you return to running or any intense level of playing sports. Rehab gives you that assurance.
Even after you return to running or sports, you will need to continue to work and rehab the area most often for the rest of your athletic career and beyond.
The Mental Impact
It’s easy to underestimate how an injury can affect you mentally. If running or sports are a part of your identity, it’s stressful to not be able to do those activities. During the time that you’re sidelined, you may feel anxious or depressed.
If exercise had been an outlet for stress and other emotions, you may need to add in more mental health support. This might look like talking to a mental health therapist or perhaps finding a support group in person or online.
If you can, try to reframe this timeout as a way to learn about your sport from a different perspective. Perhaps it’s time to focus on studying strategies. Try to see it as a way to grow as an athlete by overcoming adversity.
Don’t Rush Back into Exercise
The biggest thing to remember is that you don’t want to rush back to athletics. Research shows that people typically feel better before their body is ready to return to sport, and those who return to their sport before the one-year mark are at a higher risk for the ACL rupturing again. They have to restart the entire healing process, and that is a much bigger mental setback.
The best course of action is to keep with the rehabilitation program and stay on the sidelines until you have recreated the stability in your knee to the point that your doctor signs off.
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