With Advice from Rick Lee, MS, PT
Owner of Benton Physical Therapy and Malvern Physical Therapy
Unless you’re Marcus Lattimore, who famously — or infamously? — injured all four ligaments in a college football game in 2012, the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is the knee ligament you’re most likely to injure. All of us can take steps to reduce the risk, but if you do suffer an ACL tear, your physical therapist can help you on the road to recovery.
An ACL tear is usually caused by a traumatic event, says Rick Lee, Owner and physical therapist at Benton Physical Therapy and Malvern Physical Therapy. While some tears occur during vehicle collisions or during a fall, most are sports-related and occur without contact from anyone or anything else. These “non-contact” injuries can be caused by quick changes in direction with a misstep, a bad landing after a jump (especially in basketball) or even simply turning the body while slowing down.
Many people that have experienced an ACL tear say that the injury creates a very loud popping sound; one mother, whose son recently tore his ACL, described it this way: “The resulting pop reputedly resounded like gunfire through the facility.” Rick Lee says that symptoms following an ACL injury might include noticeable swelling, pain either in the front or back of the knee, and instability in the joint (often referred to as “giving out”). If you hear such a sound, and have any of these symptoms, he says, it’s time to see a doctor. Most likely, he will order an MRI to confirm or rule out an ACL tear.
An ACL injury or tear does not necessarily mean surgery, but it will necessitate rehabilitation and physical therapy. Rick says that rehabilitation after an ACL injury should focus on reducing or eliminating swelling, restoring complete range of motion, and regaining strength and functionality. Visits to physical therapy will feature a variety of treatment methods, including exercises, hands-on stretches and massage, and a home exercise program.
Rule number one in this (and any) rehabilitation program: Listen to your body. Rick advises moving at your own pace, saying, “Progressing too quickly or too slowly can be very detrimental to your results.” Physical therapy could last anywhere from 6 to 24 weeks, and it can take up to a year to return to your previous level of activity. Rick notes that some athletes post-injury may wear a stabilizing brace during activity, to help avoid further injury.
Rick explains that a good physical therapy provider will create a return-to-sport program specific for that patient, and test the patient thoroughly to allow their physician to properly determine if they are ready to return to sporting activities. In addition, he says, “Upon discharge, the patient should be given an extensive home exercise program to continue to work on proximal hip strength, core strength, proprioceptive awareness, and hamstring/quad strength.” (And be aware: one of the biggest risks for ACL injury is previous ACL injury, so even after you’re released from the doctor or physical therapist, you should take precautions against another ACL injury.)