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Can An ACL Tear Heal on Its Own?

Can An ACL Tear Heal on Its Own?

Your knee's anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) stabilizes it so you can run, jump, and stop during play. Unfortunately, the ACL is susceptible to tears. In fact, ACL tears are one of the most common sports injuries.

About one in every 3,500 people in the United States tear their ACL each year. This type of tear is much more common in athletes than in non-athletes and usually occurs during play.

If you’ve torn your ACL, you’re out of the game until it heals. Doctors perform about 400,000 ACL reconstructions per year in the US. But can an ACL heal by itself, or do you need ACL repair? 

David Lintner, MD, a world-renowned sports medicine specialist, diagnoses, evaluates, and repairs ACL tears at Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine in Kingwood and Houston, Texas. His experience as the head team physician for the Houston Astro makes him uniquely qualified to determine whether your tear needs surgery.

Can your ACL heal on its own? The answer depends on your unique situation.

The ACL may heal in non-athletes

Your ACL is a tough tissue that has limited blood supply. Without a robust blood supply, self-healing was thought to be impossible.

However, a recent study from the British Journal of Sports Medicine suggests that some ACL tears can be repaired on their own with proper care and rehabilitation. Patients evaluated in this study were healthy and active young people aged 18-35. None of them were athletes. 

If you’re not an athlete, you may be able to heal your ACL with bracing, rehabilitation, and other therapies over a long period. However, about half of non-surgically treated ACL tears eventually require surgery. 

ACL repair gets you back in the game

Newer data indicate that surgically a repaired ACL can perform well if the injury pattern is appropriate. This is different from “reconstruction” in which the ACL is replaced. Most ACL injuries require reconstruction. But some can be “repaired”.  In “repair” your own ACL tissue is reattached rather than replaced. The recovery is easier and faster.  The early results are promising but remember that only a small percentage of ACL injuries are torn in precisely the right way for repair to be appropriate.  If you’re an athlete, you probably need ACL reconstruction.

With surgery, you could be back in play after about six - nine months post-procedure. Not only must you choose your surgeon carefully to ensure the best outcome, but you must also work with an exceptional rehab team. In 35% of cases, athletes who undergo ACL surgery and rehab never fully regain their athletic capabilities. Working with an expert like Dr. Lintner increases the chances that you’re one of the athletes who are able to return to play at your preinjury level.

All healing requires rehab

Whether your ACL requires surgery or you opt for non-surgical healing, the only way to regain function and strength is through intensive rehabilitation and support. Our center has an in-depth rehab program for ACL tears that extends over 32 weeks.

In addition, you must perform strengthening and stretching exercises at home. We evaluate you at predetermined intervals to ensure you hit all expected milestones.

The proper rehab protocol and the right physical therapy team reduce the complication risk. 

Did you stretch or tear your ACL? Contact our friendly and knowledgeable staff by phone or the online form for an ACL evaluation and ACL repair or reconstruction today. If you’re far from the Houston area, you can send an MRI to Dr. Lintner for a treatment recommendation.

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