People who live an active lifestyle, especially young athletes, can experience partial or full anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears. Around 100,000 to 200,000 individuals per year in the United States suffer ACL tears leading to knee instability, inflammation, and pain.

ACL tears can be a debilitating injury. And many opt for surgery to repair the tear. The question now is, is ACL surgery always necessary? Can an ACL tear heal without surgery?

In this blog post, we will explore the possibility of healing an ACL tear without surgery. We will also look at the causes of an ACL tear, the symptoms, and some non-surgical treatment options that may help you recover from your injury.

The Knee

To begin, let’s take a look at the anatomy of the knee and its relationship with the ACL.

The knee is one of the largest and most complex joints in the body. It’s where the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the articular cartilage, the thigh bone (femur), and the shin bone (tibia) are found.

Now, the ACL is responsible for stabilizing the knee joint and preventing it from hyperextending. On the other hand, the PCL prevents the tibia from moving too far posteriorly on the femur. The articular cartilage helps to cushion the bones and keep them from rubbing together.

The knee is a weight-bearing joint, which means that it supports the weight of the body when we are standing, walking, or running. It’s also a hinge joint, which allows us to bend our legs. Although the knee is a very strong joint, it’s also susceptible to injury. And a torn ligament is a very serious injury. 

Tearing Your ACL

One of the most common knee injuries is a torn ACL. An ACL tear is a serious knee injury that significantly impacts your life. It can occur when the knee is suddenly flexed or extended beyond its normal range of motion.

This can happen when you land awkwardly from a jump, make a sudden change in direction, or stop suddenly. ACL tears can also occur as the result of a direct blow to the knee, such as from a fall or collision.

Symptoms of an ACL Tear

If you suspect that you have torn your ACL, it is important to see a doctor right away. They will be able to diagnose your injury and recommend the best course of treatment. Some common symptoms of an ACL tear include:

– pain in the knee, especially with movement

– swelling and stiffness

– instability or “giving way” of the knee joint

– loss of range of motion in the knee joint

– tenderness along the joint line


Complete and Partial ACL Tear

There are two types of ACL injuries: partial and complete tear.

Partial ACL Tear

Partial ACL tears can occur when the knee is hyperextended or twisted. It may cause the knee to give out and can be very painful. However, a partial tear is less severe and usually doesn’t require surgery.

Complete ACL Tear

A complete ACL tear is when the ligament is completely torn, and can no longer provide stability to the knee. Complete ACL tears are most often caused by sudden changes in direction or by contact with another player. They can also occur as a result of landing awkwardly from a jump. 

The severity of the tear will also affect your treatment options. Regardless of the severity of your injury, it’s important to seek medical attention as soon as possible to ensure that you get the treatment you need.

Can an ACL tear Heal Without Surgery?

The answer to whether an ACL tear or ACL sprain can heal without surgery is a bit complicated. Recovery time depends on the severity of the tear and the individual’s body.

During your initial visit, your doctor will conduct a physical exam and review your medical history. They may also order imaging tests, such as an MRI, to get a better look at the structures inside your knee.

In some cases, surgical intervention may be necessary to repair the ACL. But for a minor sprain or a level one tear, the ligament may heal on its own with rest and rehabilitation through non-surgical treatment options.

Attend Physical therapy

A physical therapist can develop a personalized rehabilitation program that will help you strengthen the muscles around your knee. They can guide how to safely return to physical activity.

Rehabilitation can take several months, but it’s essential to be patient and follow your physical therapist’s recommendations. A gradual return to activity will help you avoid re-injuring your ACL.

Apply Ice and Elevate Your Knee

Apply ice to the area for 15-20 minutes a few times a day for the first 2-3 days. This will help reduce pain and swelling.

It’s also best to apply a compression bandage to the area to help reduce swelling. Finally, keep your knee elevated as much as possible while you are resting.

Work with a Sports Medicine Specialist

A sports medicine specialist can guide you when and how to safely return to physical activity. Like your physical therapist, they can also recommend exercises and activities that will help you avoid re-injuring your ACL.


Wear a Knee Brace

A knee brace can help stabilize the knee joint and provide support to the ACL. Wearing a knee brace can help you avoid re-injuring your ACL to speed up your recovery time. There are many different types of knee braces available each with its advantages and disadvantages.

Some knee braces are designed to provide support during activities such as sports, while others are designed to be worn all the time. Knee braces can be made from a variety of materials, including plastic, metal, and fabric. The type of knee brace that is right for you will depend on your individual needs and preferences.

Now while it’s possible to heal an ACL tear without surgery, some tears may require surgical intervention. If the ligament is completely torn, the best option is to have ACL reconstruction surgery.

And the good news is, ACL reconstruction surgery is a very effective treatment option that can help you recover from your injury and return to your previous level of activity. The decision to have surgery should be made in consultation with a doctor or orthopedic surgeon.

But even with surgery, there is no guarantee that the ligament will be completely healed. In some cases, scar tissue can form around the torn ligament, which can prevent it from healing properly.

There are also nonsurgical options available, such as stem cell therapy, which shows promise in helping to heal ACL tears without surgery. Recovery from an ACL injury can take several months, regardless of whether you have surgery.

Trust Your Doctor

After sustaining an ACL injury, it can be difficult to trust your orthopedic surgeon. You may be feeling frustrated, scared, and skeptical. However, it’s crucial to trust your doctor and be patient throughout your recovery. Your orthopedic specialist has extensive training and experience in treating ACL injuries. They will develop a treatment plan that is specifically for you and your needs.

When it comes to our health, remember that doctors are trained professionals who have our best interests at heart. They want us to be healthy and happy, and they will always recommend conservative treatment options first.

Recovery from an ACL injury takes time, but trust that your doctor is doing everything they can to help you heal. Ultimately, trust is essential for both doctors and patients to provide the best possible care.

When patients trust their doctor, they are more likely to comply with treatment plans and office visits. As a result, both the patient and the doctor can be confident in the quality of care being provided.

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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