What is an ACL?
The anterior cruciate ligament, commonly referred to as your ACL, is one of the major ligaments in your knee. Tearing your ACL is a rather serious injury that happens often in sports, especially those that require you to stop or change direction suddenly.
Symptoms of ACL Injuries
Many people hear or feel a “pop” in the knee when an ACL injury occurs. Your knee may swell, feel unstable and become too painful to put any weight on your leg, making walking unbearable. Other symptoms include:
- A loud “pop” or a “popping” sensation in the knee
- Severe pain and inability to continue activity
- Rapid swelling
- Loss of range of motion
- A feeling of instability or “giving way” when bearing weight
You should seek immediate care if you notice any of these symptoms – your knee joint is very complex and you want to make sure you get a proper diagnosis to prevent further damage.
Can You Still Walk with a Torn ACL?
You will most likely be able to walk on a torn ACL even if it is completely torn, but you should seek medical attention from a healthcare professional. Walking will become more difficult when the swelling increases in severity, which can happen within hours or even days of the initial tear.
Your leg will become increasingly stiff, swollen and bruised as time goes on. Walking on a torn ACL will most likely not cause further damage, but you should definitely not ignore it.
Causes of ACL Injuries
ACL injuries often happen during sports and fitness activities, which actively put stress on your knees. Causes include:
- Quickly slowing down or suddenly changing direction
- Pivoting while your foot is planted firmly
- Landing awkwardly after jumping
- Coming to a sudden stop
- Receiving a direct hit or blow to the knee
When the ligament is damaged, there is usually a partial or complete tear of the tissue. A mild injury may stretch the ligament but leave it intact.
Risk Factors and Complications for ACL Injuries
There are a number of factors, which increase your risk of an ACL injury, including:
- Gender – women are statistically two to four times more prone to tears than men
- Participating in certain contact or fast-paced sports, such as football, basketball, soccer, gymnastics and downhill skiing
- Poor conditioning and not stretching your muscles before activity
- Wearing footwear that doesn’t fit properly or equipment that has not been adequately maintained
- Playing on artificial turf surfaces
Further complications include a higher risk of developing osteoarthritis in the affected knee and arthritis may occur even if you have surgery to reconstruct the ligament.
Diagnosing ACL Injuries
Your doctor will likely start off with a physical exam to check your knee for tenderness and swelling as well as assessing your range of motion. Further tests may be needed to rule out causes and determine the severity of the injury, these include:
- X-Ray: This may be necessary to determine whether a bone has been fractured
- MRI: To determine the extent of your ACL tear and see if surrounding tissue or cartilage has been damaged
- Ultrasound: This can check the status of other ligaments, muscles and tendons in your knee
Can an ACL Tear Heal on Its Own?
The ACL cannot heal on its own because there is no blood supply to this ligament. However, not all ACL tears will require surgical intervention. Typically, an ACL injury is diagnosed in ranges from mild to severe. If you’ve injured your ACL and haven’t experienced knee instability nor have the need to use it for sports or other daily activities, physical therapy may be enough to heal the injury.
Treatment for ACL Injuries
Non-Surgical Treatment for an ACL Injury
Immediately after the injury occurs, prompt first aid care can reduce pain and swelling by following the RICE model:
- Rest. Rest is necessary for healing and limits weight bearing on your knee.
- Ice. Try to ice your knee for 20 minutes every two hours to help reduce swelling.
- Compression. Wrap an elastic bandage around your knee.
- Elevation. Lie down and keep your knee propped up on a pillow.
Surgical Treatment for an ACL Injury
ACL reconstruction surgery is performed to create a new ligament, which takes the place of the torn ACL. If you have one or more torn ligaments in the knee, or if there are signs of ongoing knee instability, surgery is recommended. This is usually necessary for athletes as the ACL is required to safely perform sharp sports movements.
ACL Tear Rehabilitation
Medical treatment for an ACL tear begins with several weeks of rehabilitative therapy. A physical therapist will teach you exercises that you can perform either with supervision or at home. The type of therapy needed takes into consideration your normal level of activity, physical fitness, and the extent of your injury.
Most rehabilitation programs include:
- Flexibility exercises
- Strengthening exercises
- Endurance activities
- Coordination and agility training (for competitive athletes)
How Long Does it Take to Recover from an ACL Tear Without Surgery?
Although not undergoing surgery does cut down recovery time, partial ACL tear recovery time is still fairly substantial. Usually three months of extensive strength and flexibility training must be done so the muscles around the knee are able to compensate for the weakened ACL.
ACL Injury Prevention
There are many training techniques that can help prevent an ACL tear from happening or recurring. This includes practicing proper landing after jumps, strengthening your hamstring and quad muscles, and staying conditioned year-round. The main focus should be making sure the muscles surrounding the ACL are strong.
Request an Appointment at The Orthopedic Clinic Today
At The Orthopedic Clinic, we want you to live your life in full motion. If an ACL tear or knee injury is making life difficult, let us help you by mapping out your options. We’ll tailor a treatment plan that’s best for your lifestyle and get you back to doing the things you love.