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Do You Need Surgery for a Torn ACL: Complete Guide


In competitive sports, every athlete’s worst nightmare is tearing his/her ACL. An ACL injury can come from direct contact or a sudden pivot that can cause a non-contact injury.

Either way, waiting for the complete diagnosis can be anxiety-provoking.

And if you’ve ever suffered a torn ACL, you may be wondering if you need surgery for a torn ACL. The answer to this question depends on several factors, including the extent of the tear and your overall health.

Here, we’ll give you an overview of ACL tears, including their types and the non-surgical treatment options you can consider.

Understanding the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)

As you may well know, the knee joint is one of the largest and most complex joints in the human body. It’s made up of the shin bone (tibia), the thigh bone (femur), and the articular cartilage, which helps to cushion and protect the bones.

The knee joint is held together by a network of ligaments, including the ACL. The ACL is one of its major stabilizing ligaments and helps provide knee stability and muscle strength.

However, you can be vulnerable to experiencing different types of ACL injuries, especially during high-impact activities such as running or jumping. A tear or rupture of the ACL can cause knee pain, swelling, instability, and loss of range of motion.

Types of ACL Tears

There are three main types of ACL tears: partial tears, complete tears, and ACL/meniscus tears.

Partial ACL tears

Partial ACL tears involve only a partial rupture of the ligament. A partial tear occurs when the ACL is stretched or partially torn. Symptoms of a partial ACL tear include pain, swelling, and instability in the knee.

Complete ACL tears

A complete ACL tear occurs when the ligament is completely torn, and it can no longer provide stability to the knee joint.

This condition can lead to chronic pain, instability, and difficulty walking. In some cases, a complete ACL tear can also cause the knee to give out, making it difficult to stand or even walk. 

ACL and Meniscus Tears

The meniscus is a crescent-shaped piece of cartilage that sits between the thighbone and shinbone, acting as a cushion for the joint. Tears can occur when the knee is twisted or bent forcefully, often during sports or other physical activity. Meniscus tears can range from small tears that heal on their own to large tears that require surgery to repair. 

Sometimes during a particularly severe injury, the ACL and meniscus can be injured simultaneously. These types of tears are known as ACL/meniscus tears.

Each type of ACL tear requires different treatment, and the prognosis for each type of tear varies depending on the severity of the injury.

Partial ACL tears, for example, can often be treated with rest and rehabilitation, while complete ACL tears or those involving multiple ligaments or cartilage may require more extensive reconstructive surgery.


Do You Need Surgery For a Torn ACL?

There are a few factors that will be taken into account when deciding to operate. The severity of the knee injury will be one of the biggest factors. Surgery will likely be recommended if you have an unstable knee or if a large bone fragment has come loose.

The age of the patient is also a factor. For young athletes who still have many years of their career ahead of them, surgery may be recommended to prevent further damage down the road. Although this has been the common practice, growing evidence is showing that joint-centered knee exercise programs can return those with stable knees post-ACL injury to previous levels of function.

The diagnosis will be made by a doctor after doing a physical examination and reviewing imaging tests. However, the final decision about whether or not to proceed with ACL surgery will ultimately be up to the patient.

For some people, the risks associated with the surgery may outweigh the benefits. Others may feel that going through with surgery is their best chance at regaining full knee function. Ultimately, it is a personal decision that should be made after careful consideration and consultation with a medical professional.

What is ACL Reconstruction Surgery?

ACL reconstructive surgery is a type of orthopedic surgery performed to reconstruct a torn ligament.

When the ACL is torn, it can cause instability in the joint and pain. Reconstructive surgery involves making small incisions in the leg and using a graft (a small piece of tissue taken from another area of the body or a donor) to reconstruct the ligament.

  1. The first step in ACL reconstruction surgery is to remove the damaged ligament. This is done by making small incisions in the knee.
  2. Next, a graft (a piece of tissue or a tendon from another part of the body or donor) is used to replace the damaged ligament.
  3. The graft is usually taken from the kneecap (patellar tendon) or a tendon in the hamstring muscle or quadriceps tendon.
  4. The ends of the graft are then attached to the bone. 

ACL reconstruction surgery can be performed on an outpatient basis, meaning that the patient does not have to stay in the hospital overnight.

Recovery time from the surgery typically takes several months, but after that, most patients can return to their normal activities. When returning to competitive athletics athletes must take at least 9 months to over a year to ensure a full recovery.

Nonsurgical Treatment Options

An ACL tear is a serious injury that can sideline even the most seasoned athlete. But for young athletes, it can be especially devastating, putting their careers at risk before they’ve even really begun.

Thankfully, there are non-surgical treatment options that can help to reduce the risks and improve outcomes.

Do Physical Therapy

Physical therapy is a critical part of the healing process for many patients. A physical therapist works with patients to help them regain their full range of motion and reduce their pain. Some physical therapists specialize in helping patients with specific conditions, such as sports injuries or neurological disorders.

Other physical therapists work with patients of all ages and backgrounds. No matter what their specialty is, physical therapists use a variety of techniques to help their patients recover.

These may include exercises, stretches, massage, and electrical stimulation. Physical therapy can be an essential part of the road to recovery for many patients.

Focus on Joint Strength

While most people exercise to look good athletes need to be more mindful. Athletes need to strengthen not only their muscles but also their joints. Joint-centric exercise programs to increase the strength, range of motion, and pain-free ability of your hip, knee, and ankle joints are paramount to a successful athletic career.

These types of programs helped me recover from 4 knee surgeries (including both ACL surgeries).

Purchase a Knee Brace

A knee brace is a support device worn around the knee to provide stability and protection. Knee braces are commonly used to support the knee following an injury, such as an ACL tear. They are also used to minimize the risk of having more injuries in people who are at risk for knee instability, such as people with arthritis.

Wearing a knee brace can help to reduce pain and swelling, and it can also promote healing. In addition, a knee brace can improve joint alignment and stability, which can help to prevent future injuries.

For these reasons, knee braces are an essential part of many people’s rehabilitation and treatment plans.

Use Crutches

If you have recently suffered a knee injury, you may be wondering whether or not you should use crutches. Crutches can be a great way to support your knee while it heals, but they are not appropriate for every situation. If you have a torn ACL or other ligament damage, crutches can help to take the weight off of your knee and allow it to heal properly.

However, if you only have a mild sprain, crutches may not be necessary. Speak with your doctor to determine whether or not crutches are right for you.

In some cases, surgery may still be necessary out of all treatment options, but for many young athletes, nonsurgical treatment options offer a positive outcome to return to the field.


Be careful with your ACL

While surgery is generally successful in restoring full function to the knee, it can also lead to complications like blood clots. That’s why it’s so important to be careful with your ACL, train your joints rigorously, and follow your physician’s instructions for rehabilitation after surgery.

If you’re a competitive athlete, you’ll also want to consult with your coach or trainer about the best treatment plan for your condition. With proper care and rehabilitation, you can expect to make a full recovery and return to your previous level of activity.