A knee injury is one thing. An ACL tear is another. 

Full-on complete ACL tears always require surgery for the knee to function again. But is this the case with partial ACL tears, can a partial ACL tear heal, you may wonder?

In this post, I’ll explain everything I know about treating ACL tears, from full to partial to anywhere in between. 

It goes without saying, despite ACL tears being fairly common, every tear is different. Knee injuries, too, are different, so the recovery options for any ACL injury depend on many different factors. The best option is always to follow the guidance of your healthcare provider. They know how to help you best and will always aim to get you back to your best self. 

Active lifestyles

First, let’s talk about the commonality of ACL tears. 

It’s believed in the United States that around 200,000 people suffer some form of ACL tear annually. Being mainly athletes or sportsmen/women that suffer from ACL tears, according to statistics, it makes you realize the impact an ACL tear can have on the individual in question. 

Symptoms of an ACL tear include:

  • Sudden severe pain in the knee 
  • Knee instability – unable to stand on the injured leg
  • Swelling and redness 
  • A loud ‘snap’ sound when the injury occurred
  • Loss of flexibility and motion in the knee joint

The way any type of ACL tear happens is down to a sudden change in direction which goes against the normal knee capabilities.

This might be a jumping action, running or sprinting, or even a sudden blow, say, on the football field – meaning the knee is hyper-extended far beyond its normal range of motion. 

You can also sustain an ACL tear from trauma, such as a blunt object landing on the knee in a car accident or even slipping off the sidewalk and losing your balance. But this is far less common than, say, professional athletes who are training day in, day out. 

It is invariably athletes who suffer most commonly from ACL tears, making it not only a big injury with a massive impact on the athlete’s livelihood but also a tremendous toll on the mental and emotional side of things. 

I wrote a book about the psychological effects of ACL tears on athletes based on my own experience. If you’re interested, you check it out here.


Proper Diagnosis

If there is concern about an ACL tear in the knee joint, the first priority is to diagnose it. 

Usually, a range of imaging options, such as X-ray and Ultrasound, are utilized to assess the knee along with a physical exam to establish the severity of the injury. 

What medical professionals need to know is whether the entire ligament is damaged or if the ACL ligament is partially torn. Perhaps it’s an ACL sprain, in which case a more conservative type of treatment can be used to avoid ACL surgery. 

Now, to be straight with you, a complete tear of the ACL almost certainly requires surgical reconstruction in most cases. 

However, a partially torn ACL may if suitable, be guided down the non-surgical treatment route. This may include using a knee brace, rest, and physical therapy to aid recovery. 

How do I know if non-surgical options are right for me?

You must always place trust in the healthcare system regarding any form of knee trauma. 

When I say trauma, I include the range of ACL tears that can happen due to injury.

Non-surgical treatment of partial ACL tears does, in most cases, result in a full recovery which is great news. If you can avoid going under the knife, then do!

Equally, if the orthopedic surgeon says it’s necessary to have ACL reconstruction surgery, regardless of whether it’s a full tear or partial – then follow their instruction. They are specialists and certainly know what they’re talking about. 

The aim of any of the treatment options offered to you is to gain a full range of motion back in your leg. You ideally want to return to the activity level you had pre-injured knee, if not better!

To get to this, however, relies on several factors, including:

  • The extent of your injury
  • Whether the bones/muscles/cartilage are also involved
  • The time of injury and how long it’s been since it happened
  • Your physical fitness levels at the time of injury

So, in short, you won’t know whether non-surgical options are right for you unless all those other variables are answered beforehand. 

But, the possibility is there if we’re looking at partial ACL injuries to consider nonsurgical options. 


Can A Partial ACL Tear Heal?

The answer with many physical conditions is “it depends”. Many individuals who have a partial ACL tear will heal completely after 12-16 weeks of vigorous conservative treatment. Others may have persistent deficits in stability and overall function of their knee joint which may require surgical intervention.

To ensure you are following the right path follow the guidance of your primary care physician, surgeon, and any second opinions you deem necessary to ensure you are comfortable with the path before you.

I hope you’ve found this post helpful and somewhat reassuring. An ACL injury is relatively common, albeit very painful and debilitating. Remember to lean on the professionals to support you and guide you through it. 

If you’d like to read another post of mine, I recommend this one to follow with. 

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.

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