Torn ACL symptoms are both physical and psychological. This is something that I grew to become acutely aware of. I’m a born athlete and love everything about participating in sports.

A tear in my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) changed the trajectory of my entire life, and that came with a lot of mental anguish and hardships. That telltale audible “pop” was the start of a long road toward rediscovering myself in a new world knowing that I would never recover to the point of pursuing my passion.

About 100,000 ACL surgeries are performed each year, and the rate of knee injuries in children athletes is growing by 2 percent annually. It’s one of the most common injuries to disqualify you from a career in sports or the military. Despite the prevalence of ACL tears, traditional medicine typically only covers the physical repair – very little attention is ever paid to a patient’s mental, emotional, and psychological recovery.

The pain of an ACL tear runs much deeper than your knee. It’s not the physical pain that makes a superstar athlete crumble in agony on TV—it’s the agony of knowing they may never compete professionally again. If you recently tore your ACL, I know what you’re going through.

Myths of Torn ACL Recovery Time

Not all ACL tears are the same, and they don’t always happen alone. Sometimes, an ACL is only partially torn and can be rehabilitated with a knee brace and three months of physical therapy. However, half of all ACL injuries happen in tangents with damage to the meniscus, cartilage, and other knee ligaments.

It’s not so much the pain that ultimately takes getting used to either; it’s the mobility. Learning to walk, jog, and move around with a torn ACL is like switching cars and having to relearn the feel of the clutch, brakes, and steering. Tearing my ACL led to instability in movement that could only be accomplished with specialized exercises (sometimes using specialized equipment).

Without surgery, a partially torn ACL can heal in as little as three months. A fully torn ligament can take up to a year after surgery to heal, and some people recover as quickly as six months.

But it’s not the physical injury that will ultimately derail you. The mental anguish includes depression, fits of rage, and anxiety as you hit a new wall every day in the transition to your new life.

ACL injuries are common in athletes and in the military. Any career that requires high physical conditioning ultimately can end with a debilitating traumatic injury like a torn ACL or concussion. This means you’re not just forced to learn a new way to walk – you also need to learn how to live your life with a new trajectory after being deemed ineligible.

The Art of Reinventing Yourself

Fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to play pro, according to the organization’s statistics. And ACL tears are among the most common injuries reported in professional leagues like the National Football League if you do turn pro. Suffering a career-ending injury means you need both physical and occupational therapy to learn how to adapt.

Your self-identity and self-esteem can be destroyed by these injuries, as you’re placed on an injured list and pushed off to the side. I dedicated my entire life to playing football, and not to brag, but I was great at it. There was no doubt in my mind that I would go pro at least in the Canadian Football League, if not the NFL.

What can you do when forced to make a career change?

A career change is one of the top five most stressful life events, right under a major illness or injury. With a torn ACL, that means you’re facing two major life stressors when your injury forces a career change on top. Whether an athlete or a soldier, you define yourself by it, and having that taken away from you is heartbreaking.

It took me a long time in therapy to deal with the idea that I could never reach my childhood dreams. But I did eventually find my self-worth and a purpose through a combination of acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) and cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT).

And of course, you need a solid support system in your family, friends, teachers, coaches, and any other mentors in your life. It’s ok to not be ok, and you can build and walk a new path post-injury.


Mental and Physical Rehabilitation

Even though you’re unlikely to compete at a professional level, you still need to exercise to recover from a torn ACL. Regular exercise has been shown to improve both physical and mental health in patients suffering from a wide array of ailments like depression. Basic calisthenics, yoga, and regular walks outside are great ways to stay in shape while recovering.

Don’t overexert yourself though. It’s important to listen to your body and only push it as far as it’s willing to go. It’ll be a slow process at first, but the effects will build exponentially over time. Before you know it, you’ll be back to living a normal life, even if the lifestyle changes are difficult.

It’s important to take a holistic approach to recovery and involve as much professional help as you can through each stage. The mental trauma of being injured requires treatment in order for the physical wounds to heal. Don’t be afraid to reach out for help.

Building a Support System

When I tore my ACL, I spiraled through some dark places learning to accept who I am and what I’m meant to do with my life. Learning to walk both literally and metaphorically on a new path in life was one of the most traumatic and transformative experiences. In fact, I wrote a book about my personal journey that I encourage you to read and understand you’re not alone.

It’s normal to be scared when facing the serious consequences of ACL injuries, but there are ways to move forward. And if you need guidance on how to build the proper support system, feel free to contact me.

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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