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ACL and PCL Tears: What You Need to Know


If you’re a sports enthusiast, then you’ve probably heard of your favorite players sustaining an ACL or PCL injury.

But what do these acronyms stand for? And more importantly, what do you need to know if you sustain one of these knee ligament injuries?

In this blog post, we will discuss the differences between an ACL vs PCL tear. We will also provide information on treatment options one can use if they tear either of these ligaments.

What are ACL and PCL Tears

The knee joint is held together by several ligaments, which provide stability and allow the joint to move smoothly. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) are two major ligaments in the knee.

The ACL can be seen via imaging from the back of the femur (or thigh bone) that runs to the front of the knee joint (connecting to the tibia, or shin bone). The PCL originates on the medial femur and runs to the posterior tibia.

These main ligaments cross each other in the middle of the knee joint, forming an “X” shape. 

The knee also has collateral ligaments namely the medial collateral ligament (MCL), and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL). They provide stability to the knee by preventing it from moving side to side while the ACL and PCL prevent it from moving forward or backward. 

To add, these cruciate ligaments also manage excessive rotation to avoid sustaining a knee injury. It’s important to understand that regardless of whether you have complete or partial tears in either ligament, the knee joint can rapidly become unstable.

Causes and Symptoms of an ACL vs PCL

One of the most common causes of PCL and ACL injuries is experiencing a car accident. This is usually the result of a sudden impact, such as when two vehicles collide head-on.

Motor vehicle accidents are also a leading cause of these injuries in pedestrians and cyclists who are hit by a car. Other causes include falls, contact sports, and repetitive motion.

There are a few ways to tell if you’ve torn your ACL or PCL.

For an ACL injury, you’ll potentially experience:

  • stiffness and pain
  • a direct blow to the knee
  • hear a popping or clicking sound from the knee.

Symptoms of an ACL tear include pain and swelling of the knee, instability in the knee, and difficulty walking.

As with a PCL injury, it’s less severe compared to ACL but the following might happen to your knee

  • gradual swelling and tenderness
  • feel unstable when bearing weight
  • straightening fully is difficult

Symptoms of a PCL tear include pain and swelling on the back of the knee and difficulty bearing weight on the knee joint.


Treatment Options for ACL vs PCL Tears

Surgery is the primary option for those who’ve experienced a complete tear in their ACL or PCL. Reconstructive surgery is the most common surgical option and usually involves taking a tendon from another area of the body and using it to reconstruct the torn ligament.

This surgery is usually successful in restoring full function to the knee joint.

For patients who are not candidates for surgery, several nonsurgical treatment options can be effective including:

  • Physical Therapy: A physical therapist will work with patients to improve their range of motion and reduce swelling. They may also recommend exercises to help strengthen the muscles around the knee joint.
  • Ice: Ice can be applied for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. This will help to reduce swelling and pain. Elevation of the leg can also help to reduce swelling. 
  • Anti-inflammatory Medications: Over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen and naproxen can be effective in reducing swelling and pain.
  • Knee Braces: Wearing a knee brace can help to stabilize the knee joint and reduce pain.

In some cases, a combination of these treatments may be recommended. It’s important to follow your doctor’s recommendations and to avoid activities that put stress on the knee joint until the ligament has healed.

Knee ligament tears can be very painful and can cause instability in the joint. If you think you may have a knee ligament tear, see an orthopedic surgeon for evaluation. They can properly diagnose with the help of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI).

Risks and Recovery Time for ACL and PCL Tears

Recovering from an ACL or PCL tear can be a long and difficult process, regardless of whether or not you opt for surgery. However, the average time frame for full recovery is 9 to 12 months.

Some people may experience minor residual symptoms, such as joint stiffness or tenderness, for up to two years. 

There are also risks associated with both surgical and nonsurgical treatment options. For example, arthroscopic surgery carries a risk of infection, while nonsurgical treatment may result in the development of arthritis.

In addition, both options require a significant amount of time and effort to achieve a full recovery.

Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to have surgery should be made based on your circumstances and the advice of your doctor.

Sports after ACL vs. PCL

“Can I still play sports after having surgery for an ACL or PCL tear?” 

This is a normal and valid question most athletes ask before surgery and even during rehabilitation. And the good news is, that most people who have knee ligament surgery experience a full recovery and can return to playing sports.

However, consult with a doctor before returning to physical activity, as there is a risk of re-injury. People who have had knee surgery may also experience:

  • knee pain,
  • knee dislocations,
  • hyperextension of the knee.

These issues can typically be managed with the help of a physical therapist. With proper care and rehabilitation, most people who have had knee surgery can return to playing sports without any problems.

Preventive Measures for ACL and PCL Injuries

With any kind of injury, there is always the fear of re-injury. This is especially true when it comes to knee injuries, as the knees are involved in just about every movement we make. Even with conservative treatment and a physical examination, it can be difficult to fully recover from an ACL or PCL tear.

However, some preventative measures can be taken to avoid tearing these ligaments in the future.

One of the most important things to do is to strengthen the muscles around the knee, particularly the quadriceps and hamstrings. This will help to support the joint and decrease the stress on the ligaments.

Next, avoid sudden movements or impact activities that could put undue strain on the knee, until you have properly trained your knee joints to reach their full potential.

Finally, always make sure you wear supportive shoes and do some stretching.


Take Good Care of Your Knee

As we age, it’s important to take good care of our bodies – and that includes our knees. After all, we use them practically every day. The ACL and PCL are two crucial ligaments in the knee, and they can be easily damaged by overexertion or an accident.

That’s why it’s essential to avoid overexercising your knee and to check with your doctor if you’re experiencing any pain or discomfort.

Taking a few simple precautions now can help you avoid serious problems down the line. So don’t neglect your knees – give them the attention they deserve!