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Tips for Returning to Play After an ACL Tear

Tips for Returning to Play After an ACL Tear

Tears to the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) are so common that one in 3,500 women, men, and children in the United States experience an ACL tear each year. Female athletes are up to eight times more likely than male athletes to tear their ACL due to anatomical and hormonal differences that affect body mechanics.

The most common way to repair an ACL tear is with ACL reconstruction surgery. In fact, about half of ACL tears that are initially treated non-operatively with rest and rehabilitation eventually require surgical reconstruction. There is some exciting research about repairing ACLs rather than rebuilding/replacing them. Currently this is applicable for only select unusual injury types and is not widely appropriate. Regardless, if you have torn your ACL and plan to remain active, it is best to have surgery to fix it.

At our Baytown and Houston, Texas, Houston Methodist Orthopedics & Sports Medicine clinics, David Lintner, MD, diagnoses and treats ACL tears. He’s developed a specific ACL tear rehabilitation protocol to help you rebuild your knee strength so you can play again and communicates regularly with your PT to customize your program.. He has also produced this brief guide of tips for when and how to return to play.

Manage your expectations

Although you’re understandably anxious to return to your game, if you don’t want to end up on the sidelines again, you must manage your expectations. Recovery from an ACL takes time. Whether you’ve opted for the RICE protocol (i.e., rest, icing, compression, elevation) or surgical repair, you must gradually rehabilitate your knee.

Full recovery after ACL reconstruction can take more than six months. However, in up to 35% of cases, even with rehabilitation, you may not be able to return to your pre-injury capabilities. To give yourself the best shot at recovery, be sure to work with an experienced and expert ACL surgeon, such as Dr. Lintner. And, of course, precisely follow your rehab protocol.

Honor each stage of healing

Even after expert ACL reconstruction, your healing includes several phases, each of which has its own set of goals and landmarks. Each phase also prescribes exercises to help you achieve those landmarks.

Phase 1 (weeks 1-2)

Control swelling and stimulate your quadricep. Stretch the hamstring and calf. Use a brace and crutches.

Phase 2 (weeks 2-4)

Walk with a normal gait. Walk up and down stairs without crutches.

Phase 3 (weeks 4-8)

Full quad control and tone. Perform daily activities easily.

Phase 4 (weeks 8-12)

High-intensity strengthening. That includes quad stretching and jogging and plyometrics with a brace.

Phase 5 (weeks 12-16) 

Progress with stretching, pylos, jogging, and jumping.

Phase 6 (weeks 16-32)

Stressing and testing continue. Begin sprints and cutting drills. Utilize sports-specific tests, including the Biodex and hopping test.

Rehab at home, too

Your work with our team is invaluable. So is testing to see if you’re reaching goals and milestones. However, you need to exercise and stretch at home, too.

Talk to Dr. Lintner about how to develop your strength and flexibility between your training sessions without the risk of re-injury. For instance, he may clear you for swimming or other low-impact activities once you’ve reached a certain point in your recovery.

Also, be sure that your physical therapist analyzes your body mechanics and makes recommendations on how to avoid re-injuring your knee or damaging other areas while trying to avoid putting pressure on your knee. Don’t return to your sport until you’re both physically and psychologically ready to go all-in.

Listen to your body

Athletes often learn how to override the signals their body sends them so that they can push themselves to extremes so they can achieve their goals. However, a significant injury like an ACL tear is a wake-up call that you need to be aware of how your body feels.

An ACL tear increases your risk for degenerative diseases, including arthritis. If you notice new pain or stiffness anywhere in your body — particularly your knee — have Dr. Lintner evaluate it right away. It’s better to be out of the game for longer than you want than to be forced out permanently.

If your knee hurts or you have an ACL tear, contact our office nearest you in Houston or Baytown, Texas. Phone our friendly team or book an evaluation or ACL rehabilitation appointment online.

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