One of the most common traumatic knee injuries in athletics is an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) tear. The ACL is a main stabilizing ligament in the knee. Athletes and recreational enthusiasts of all ages — and experience levels — can tear their ACL. Athletes who participate in high impact and pivoting sports like soccer, football, volleyball, and basketball are at a higher risk of tearing their ACL compared to other sports.

The degree of ligament tearing will determine if surgery is required. Most ACL tears are complete. Therefore, if athletes are seeking to return to full activity, surgery is required. After ACL surgery, athletes are anxious to get back to the sport they love. Every case is different and there isn’t an exact formula on when an individual athlete will return to sports after an ACL tear as there can commonly be damage to other knee structures such as the meniscus that could require repair and slow the recovery process. Most commonly, athletes can return to sports within six to eight months after surgery. To help patients get back to their sport safely with minimal risk of re-injury, ACL specialist Dr. Richard Cunningham shares tips on recovery after ACL surgery.

Advancements in ACL Treatment

In the last few decades, sports medicine has made major advances in ACL treatments, which has led to faster recovery time compared to earlier years of treatments. Most notably, ACL treatment has moved from traditional open surgery to minimally-invasive arthroscopic treatment. This advancement alone has led to an overall faster recovery time.

From a post-operative perspective, rehabilitation programs have become far more advanced. In earlier years, patients would remain immobile for several weeks post-surgery. Today, rehabilitation begins immediately after surgery allowing athletes to return to their sport quicker.

Every Case is Different

In some patients, an ACL tear may be accompanied by another ligament tear, such as a medial collateral ligament tear (MCL), or meniscus tear. In these patients, recovery is more complex and may lead to a longer recovery time.

The technique used to treat an ACL injury can differ. The most common treatment technique is ACL reconstruction. However, in some types of ACL tears, the ligament can be repaired and saved. The individual ACL treatment requires a slightly different post-operative protocol. No matter the treatment technique, it is important for patients to closely follow post-operative protocol to ensure a full return to activity.

Physical Therapy

After surgery, the hard part begins — physical therapy. Taking physical therapy serious is key to a successful recovery. Dr. Cunningham’s patients are given specific exercises to follow. The two main goals of physical therapy following ACL surgery is to: increase knee joint range of motion, and restore strength to the joint. It is important to follow instructions carefully, and to not advance past what has been prescribed unless directed so by Dr. Cunningham.

Rehabilitation after ACL surgery typically falls into a timeline of five phases:

  • Phase 1 – First two weeks after surgery
  • Phase 2 – two to six weeks after surgery
  • Phase 3 – six weeks to three to four months after surgery
  • Phase 4 – four to six months after surgery
  • Phase 5 – return to all high level sports, usually at eight months

It is important to note that specific criteria will need to be met in order to graduate from one phase to the next. Every case is different and some patients may progress quicker, or slower than others.

Coming Back Too Quickly

Patients are often allowed to bike outdoors at 2 months and run at 4 months. Patients can golf by 4 months and snowshoe at 6 months. Returning to cutting and pivoting sports such a skiing and soccer can take 8 months. Athletes ease back into these high level activities and are not immediately cleared to play a 90 minute soccer game.

To ensure safe progression and to help minimize reinjury after being released, athletes should participate in several weeks of sport specific drills and then there should be a slow introduction back into competitive play. Properly educating patients about appropriate progression is key to minimizing re-injury.

If you are an athlete who has sustained an ACL tear, and are seeking a highly experienced ACL doctor to get you back to the activities you love, contact Dr. Cunningham and his team today: 970-569-3240. He has treated high-level and recreational athletes alike who have sustained an ACL tear.

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Rediscover your inner athlete

Dr. Cunningham specializes in the treatment of knee, shoulder, and sports injuries.

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