Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) injuries are sadly a widespread phenomenon among athletes.

So too are anterior cruciate ligament injuries well known to physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons, who are often on call to repair the damaged bands of tissue at the time of injury.

These are the people responsible for helping the injured athlete repair and recover from an ACL trauma.

The reality is that an ACL injury doesn’t just affect the individual in question.

The injury affects family members, friends, teammates in the sport, and the healthcare team that treats the injury.


Both ruptures and tears of the ACL are mind-blowingly painful, resulting in life-changing wounds that require lengthy treatment and a proper rehabilitation program.

Knowing the differences between an ACL rupture and an ACL tear is vital for an accurate diagnosis and a successful recovery.

Successful recovery means the return to the athlete’s favored sport if they wish.

After all, if an athlete sustains such an injury, the best option is to get back on track as quickly and practically as possible (from a physical and mental perspective.)

Either that or the torn ligament may result in a complete shift in mindset, which might change their outlook significantly.

I’ve suffered from an ACL injury in the past and wrote a book documenting how to overcome the psychological challenges of such an event.

Read more about the book here.

ACL rupture VS tear

This blog post discusses the differences between an ACL rupture and an ACL tear.

There is a distinct definition to both, which is important to understand (I’ll explain the differences below.)

I’ll share what I know about the risk factors (causes) of a tear or rupture.

I’ll also talk about routine diagnosis and treatment options, non-surgical and surgical treatments, and the recovery process.

What is an ACL rupture?

The Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) is a thick tissue band located in the knee joint that connects the tibia (lower leg bone) with the Femur (thigh bone.)

It plays a significant role in keeping the knee stable.

An ACL rupture occurs when there’s a complete break in the ligament itself.

In such circumstances, the injured individual may hear a popping sound, which is when the ligament snaps in two.

In such cases, the ligament separates, leaving a gap in the middle. This is medically termed a ‘complete rupture.’

In this situation, the knee would be largely immobile and would likely require surgical reconstruction to be repaired.


What is an ACL tear?

A tear refers to partial or complete damage to the ACL. The ligament is not fully intact, and there’s damage to a portion of the ligament somewhere along its length. This means that not all ACL tears are ruptures, but all ACL ruptures are ACL tears, if that makes it clearer.

It might sound confusing that a rupture and tear seem similar, and of course, they are, but it’s important to distinguish between the two types of ligament injury.

This is so you understand how best to treat an ACL injury if it happens to you, which is something we’d never wish on anyone, but it’s good to be prepared.

Risk of Injury

ACL injuries typically occur from a sudden change in leg movement, such as a twisting motion where the knee is wrenched in a contorted way, or from landing on a hard surface from a high-up jumping position.

Ligament tears of any sort happen when the ligament is overstretched and overburdened.

Athletes, football players, basketball players, track runners, and anyone involved in athletic activity are always at a higher risk of an ACL rupture or tear.

Interestingly, young athletes, especially those who are female, are more at risk of an ACL injury or an ACL sprain due to their body composition.

This comes down to their size and differences in muscle strength and flexibility compared to male athletes.

An ACL injury could, in theory, also occur if there’s a direct blow or collision involving the knee joint, such as a car or bike accident.

Long story short, if you look after your knees, your knees will look after you.

This means warming up properly before a game or sprint, driving safely, and generally being more careful with yourself when enjoying some physical activity.

Diagnosis and treatment of ACL injuries

Diagnosing and treating ACL injuries is essential to the health of the individual.

The professionals also need to understand the extent of the injury to provide the best treatment options.

In most knee injuries, a physical examination by a healthcare professional is required to start off with, particularly when diagnosing ACL injuries.

During the examination, several tests, such as the Lachman Test or Anterior Drawer Test, may be used to identify potential ACL problems.

Imaging tests such as X-rays, magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), ultrasound imaging (US), or computerized tomography (CT) scans are routinely used in diagnosing ACL tears and ruptures.

The treatment needed often depends on the severity of the injury.

Treatments range from various non-surgical options, including the use of a knee brace, physical therapy with a hands-on therapist, moderate amounts of rest, and elevating the injured knee.

In certain cases, surgical repair or reconstruction might be needed.

Non-surgical treatments are commonly advised for patients who’ve suffered partial tears of their ACLs, while reconstructive surgery will likely be needed for patients with a complete ACL rupture.

Physical therapy exercises are usually prescribed following either type of treatment to strengthen the injured leg’s quadriceps muscle and improve the range of motion in the knee joint.


Recovery and rehabilitation

The rest and recovery process are huge for an ACL injury.

Injured athletes must first learn proper exercises targeting the affected knee’s quadriceps muscle, hamstrings, hips, core, and lower back.

Strengthening these body parts will aid in the recovery of the injured ACL.

Along with these exercises, physical therapists might use manual therapy techniques such as electrical stimulation and therapy exercises, along with taping methods (kinesiology tape) or neuromuscular re-teaching techniques.

Once flexibility and mobility have improved, athletes must be wary when returning to their sport by gradually increasing the intensity levels under supervision.

It’s best to consult with medical professionals going forward, even after discharge.

Professionals can provide stretching tips or help minimize inflammation through appropriate medications; these are great supports for ACL-injured individuals.

By following these steps, athletes can often recover fully from an ACL injury while avoiding potential complications.

​I hope you found this post useful and informative.

Thank you for reading!

If you’d like to read more posts of mine, check out these ones.

About the Author

Hi there! I’m Dr. Keagen Hadley, OTD, OTR/L. Straight out of the University of Mary, I’m all about blending my know-how in knee health, well-being, and medical technology. As a licensed occupational therapy doc, I’m here to translate complex concepts into clear, actionable insights – whether it’s knee care or groundbreaking healthcare tech.

Similar Posts