Torn ACL? What to expect

knee painThe four main ligaments of the knee work like a set of strong ropes intended to hold your bones together and keep your knee stable. One of   the most common knee injuries is a tear to one of those ligaments: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).

Damage to the ACL can come from several types of activities, including rapidly changing direction, stopping suddenly or landing incorrectly from a jump. ACL injuries can also occur as the result of a direct blow to the knee, such as from a tackle.

When an ACL tears, you might hear a loud “pop” sound and feel your knee give way. Most times, the knee will swell and stay swollen for several hours or several days. You’ll also likely feel pain ranging from moderate to severe enough that you’ll want to stay off your feet. Untreated, the swelling and pain may subside on its own in a day or so. Still, that doesn’t mean the injury has healed.

Doctors can often diagnose a torn ACL based on a physical examination alone. Sometimes, diagnostic imaging, such as an MRI, can be helpful. In some cases, doctors may even advise arthroscopic surgery to diagnose the severity of an ACL injury and determine the best course of treatment.

The big question for most patients who have this type of injury is, “Do I need surgery?”  The body can’t repair an ACL tear. But depending on factors such as your activity level and whether other injuries are present, surgery isn’t always necessary. You may be able to walk and participate in many day-to-day activities with a torn ACL.

Surgery involves rebuilding the ACL, using a graft taken from tissue elsewhere in the body or from a donor. It often can be done arthroscopically, with small incisions, making it less invasive. It’s usually best to wait until the tissues in your leg have had a chance to heal before you undergo surgery.

Your doctor will advise the same approach as for patients who choose not to have the surgery, which includes:

  • wearing a brace to stabilize the knee
  • exercises to strengthen the muscles that support the knee
  • other rehabilitative therapies