Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Tear
An ACL tear is one of the most common serious sports injuries and refers to any tearing or damage to the anterior cruciate ligament, one of the two ligaments that criss-cross through the center of the knee joint. The ACL is a short, powerful length of tissue that keeps the knee stable during activities that involve fast motion, sudden stops, and quick direction changes. But when these changes of direction happen in a way that places the whole weight of the body on the knee, the ligament can tear, and medical attention is usually required for full ACL tear recovery.
Athletes should be careful not to diagnose knee injuries and possible ACL tears on their own. Many of the symptoms of an ACL tear, especially in the immediate moment, may not actually be caused by the ACL but by damage to the meniscus or the knee joint itself. The only way to confirm that the ACL has been torn all the way through, partially torn, or damaged in any other way, is to make an appointment with a doctor for an MRI scan.
In the meantime, here are a few of the symptoms of an ACL tear and some basic information about ACL tear recovery. Athletes can keep these considerations in mind if they experience knee pain on the field or if they’re undergoing the ACL tear recovery process.
ACL Tear: Symptoms
While the ACL can be exposed to damage through chronic strain or overuse, a severe ACL tear often happens without warning during an activity that places sudden unsustainable strain on the ligament. Some athletes actually hear a sound, like a crack or a pop, when the ligament reaches its limit. Even if no sound is heard, a torn ACL usually results in swelling, pain in the knee, and a feeling of instability, as if the knee will give out under the burden of body weight.
Sometimes the pain of an ACL tear is manageable and sometimes it’s extremely severe. The swelling may also be minor to begin with, but may increase dramatically over the next few hours.
While many common sports injuries, including sprains, strains, pulled muscles, and trauma can be effectively treated with a few days of rest, ice, compression, and elevation, a severe ACL tear won’t respond to this and probably won’t recover properly on its own. Even a very minor partial tear will need a medical diagnosis and professional treatment. If an ACL tear heals without proper care and physical therapy, the athlete’s range of motion and lifelong knee health may be compromised. For an effective ACL tear recovery, it’s a good idea to see a doctor right away.
ACL Tear: Risks
ACL tear injuries are most common among athletes who engage in high intensity, high impact sports that shift the body weight on and off the knee during sudden motions. Sports that involve jumping, for example, often bring a high rate of ACL tear injuries. Women are slightly more likely than men to experience ACL injuries, since the strength in their upper legs tends to be balanced more toward the front of the leg (the quadriceps) than the back (the hamstrings). Women athletes in high intensity sports should engage in regular weight training sessions focused on the hamstrings in order to keep these muscles strong and protect the knee joint. (Suspension and resistance training with the Kbands and KB Duo can help.)
ACL Tear: Diagnosis and Treatment
The first stage in the ACL tear recovery process will involve a careful diagnosis to determine the extent and exact cause of the injury. A doctor may ask several questions about how and when the injury occurred, and then may move the knee into a variety of positions to see which motions are possible and which are difficult due to pain or instability in the joint. Further details can be gathered using a MRI scan, an X-ray, or an ultrasound.
When a torn ACL is identified as the source of the problem, the doctor may recommend anything from surgery, to crutches, to a series of strength training and range of motion exercises. In very moderate cases, surgery may not be necessary at all and a few weeks of physical therapy and rest may be enough to return the knee to its full range of motion.
If surgery is required, the process will usually involve replacement of the ligament rather than repair. New ligament tissue can usually be taken from a donor or from another area of the patient’s own leg or knee. The surgical replacement is usually conducted using a tiny fiber-optic scope inserted through small incisions made around the knee joint. Regardless of the replacement tissue used and the surgical procedures involved in the process, the patient will require extensive physical therapy afterward in order to successfully complete the ACL tear recovery process.
Preventing an ACL Tear
The knee is an amazing joint, and most of the time, the knee is generally strong enough to support the body during an astonishing variety of twisting, jumping, landing, and rotating motions. But while body size and muscle strength may rise and fall, the bones and ligaments of the knee stay the same. So it’s a good idea to protect the knee joint by making sure that muscle and strength development happen in an even, balanced way. Proper technique during training can go a long way toward protecting the knee joint as the body changes. So can proper gear. Athletes should only use gear that’s strong, stable, and in good repair.
It’s also a good idea to incorporate balance and control exercises into a complete strength training regimen. Targeted resistance and suspension training can help athletes build strength in the hamstrings and core while they engage in sports-specific exercises, two areas that can help protect the knee joint during high impact activities. For more information on how Kbands resistance training equipment can build strength evenly with a focus on balance, coordination, and control, check out the training tab towards the top of the website.