Athletes and fitness fanatics alike are familiar with the phrase “torn ACL.” It is one of the more painful orthopedic conditions, and it usually affects athletes and those with an active lifestyle — but it can also strike those with less active daily lives.
What is the ACL?
In addition to bones and joints, the knee is held together by four principal ligaments that allow for flexibility, support and ease of movement. While all ligaments are important, the function of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) makes it the most vital and the most delicate. The ACL, which runs diagonally through the middle of the knee, provides stability in rotation for the knee and protects it from hyperextension. In other words, it keeps the knee stable and in place by preventing it from going farther in any one direction than it should.
What Happens When Your ACL Tears?
The ACL can be torn in a variety of ways. In sports, when the knee locks and pivots or twists at the same time, the ACL gets caught in the sudden motion and tears. This type of tear is common in high-impact sports such as basketball and football, as well as in fitness activities such as running and jogging. An ACL tear can also happen as a result of a major injury or accident, where the knee has taken a direct blow or has locked and twisted abnormally. Statistically, women are more prone to suffer from a torn ACL.
Torn ACL Symptoms and Treatment
As opposed to many other orthopedic conditions, a torn ACL is fairly easy to recognize. Most people who have suffered an ACL injury report hearing a pop of the knee at the moment of injury, followed by intense pain and gradual swelling. If left untreated, a torn ACL may cause complications that require long-term chronic pain management, which is why it’s important to see a specialist as soon as symptoms occur.
Treatment for an ACL injury greatly depends on the activity level of the person suffering the tear. For instance, someone who lives a less active lifestyle and has a minor tear may be able to heal with non-surgical treatment options, including pain medications, physical therapy and exercises to strengthen the knee and promote healing.
Those with a more active lifestyle, particularly athletes, may benefit best from arthroscopic surgery. This minimally invasive surgical procedure allows orthopedic specialists, who focus on this type of surgery, to reconstruct the ACL using a graft of tissue taken from the patient’s body. Prior to surgery, three weeks of rehabilitative therapy and exercise are recommended to strengthen the quadriceps and hamstrings. After surgery, pain medications and ongoing physical therapy are recommended to restore the knee’s range of movement. Recovery time for this kind of surgery is usually about six to nine months.