Your anterior cruciate ligament, known as the ACL, is a ligament in the knee joint that connects the thigh bone (femur) to the shinbone (tibia). The ACL stabilises the knee joint and prevents excessive forward movement of the tibia relative to the femur. The ACL is necessary for jumping and pivoting. Although anyone can suffer an ACL injury, it is much more prevalent in athletes.
What Are The Symptoms Of An ACL Tear?
Some people report feeling a popping sensation in the knee at the time of injury, followed by severe pain and swelling. An ACL tear may also result in knee instability, difficulty bearing weight on the affected leg, and limited range of motion. Some people may also experience a feeling of their knee giving out or buckling during physical activity.
Options For Treatment Of An ACL Tear
Recovering from an ACL tear may require some lifestyle adjustments, especially during the initial stages of recovery. You may need to use crutches or a brace to support your knee and avoid putting weight on it. You may also need to modify your daily activities to reduce the strain on your knee, such as avoiding stairs or long walks.
If intense physical activity does not make up a large part of your day, conservative non-surgical treatment such as physical therapy and bracing may be enough to manage symptoms and restore normal knee function.
During physical therapy, you will learn exercises to strengthen your knee, improve flexibility, and regain range of motion. You may need to continue these exercises at home and avoid high-impact activities, such as running or jumping until your knee has fully healed.
For people who are more physically active, such as athletes, orthopaedic surgery is often recommended to restore knee stability and prevent future injuries. The surgical treatment involves reconstructing the torn ACL using a graft, usually from the patient's own tissue or a donor's tissue.
You will typically undergo a rehabilitation program consisting of exercises to regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion, after surgery. Pain management will be a key part of post-operative care, and medication may be prescribed to manage pain and swelling. You may need to use crutches or a knee brace for a period of time after the surgery to allow for proper healing.
Physical therapy will also be an important part of the recovery process, and you will work with a therapist to gradually increase your activity level and return to sports or other physical activities. You may also need to adjust your diet to support your recovery, as proper nutrition can help your body heal more quickly.
What If I Don’t Want Surgery?
It is possible to have a functional knee even if your ACL is torn, but your knee may feel unstable or give way unexpectedly. This might make it more difficult to perform day-to-day tasks and increase the risk of further injury.
A torn ACL will not heal on its own. The surrounding knee might heal - the inflammation and bruising might subside - but the ligament will not reattach or grow together again if left untreated.
If an ACL tear is left untreated, it can lead to long-term instability in the knee joint, which can cause further damage to the knee and increase the risk of developing osteoarthritis. You may also experience chronic pain, swelling, and a limited range of motion in the knee.
In some cases, conservative treatment like physical therapy can help strengthen the surrounding muscles and improve knee stability. However, if you want to return to high-impact sports or activities, surgical intervention may be necessary to reconstruct the torn ACL.
Can I Continue Playing My Sport After An ACL Injury?
It is possible to continue playing sports after an ACL injury, but it depends on the severity of the injury, your goals and activity level, and the chosen treatment approach.
For minor ACL injuries, such as sprains, non-surgical treatments and physical therapy may allow you to return to your previous level of activity without surgery. However, for more severe ACL injuries or for athletes who have demanding physical careers, surgery may be necessary to repair or reconstruct the torn ligament.
If you undergo surgery, there will be a period of rehabilitation, where physical therapy will help you to regain strength, flexibility, and range of motion in the knee. You will be able to gradually return to sports or other physical activities, once cleared by a medical professional.
Living With A Torn ACL
A torn ACL may cause severe pain and swelling, knee instability, difficulty bearing weight, and limited range of motion. Treatment options vary depending on the severity of the injury and may include physical therapy, bracing, or surgery.
It is possible for the knee to function normally with day-to-day activities if an ACL is not reconstructed, but the knee might give way unexpectedly and will not be reliable for playing sports.
A completely torn ligament will not heal by itself and if left untreated, an ACL tear can lead to long-term instability in the knee joint, chronic pain, swelling, and limited range of motion.