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You feel excruciating pain in your knee as it buckles. The doctors confirm that you injured a vital ligament. How long will your torn ACL take to heal? When will you be able to return to your previous activity?
Although this injury is treatable, it can end your career if you skip proper protocol and try to return to play too soon. However, following your physician’s recommendations can result in a full recovery and allow you to return to play. Even long-distance runners can get back in the game and compete again if they’re willing to do the work.
It helps if you know what to expect. How long does a torn ACL take to heal? Will you require surgery? Here’s what you should know.
Your ACL and Symptoms of Trouble
Your knee is an incredibly complex joint. Four bones meet in the area: your tibia, fibula, femur and patella. It’s all held together by a complex series of ligaments, including the tibular, fibular, patellar, and transverse. You also have a posterior and anterior cruciate ligament — your ACL.
Your ACL and PCL lie within the knee joint. They prevent the tibia from moving out in front of the femur and allow you to pivot. They’re crucial to joint stability, and one of the symptoms of trouble with this ligament is a feeling of “giving way” or instability. Others include:
- A loud pop: Or a strong popping sensation within the knee.
- Sudden, severe pain: You will be unable to continue with activity.
- Rapid swelling
- Loss of range of motion
You must seek medical attention immediately if you suspect a torn ACL, especially if you are an athlete. While more sedentary individuals can recover from minor, partial ACL tears without surgery, the ligament will not heal independently.
Your options are surgery or retiring from sports in favor of moderate walks and gentle yoga, a fate that makes serious athletes weep. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chances of a full recovery, as an ACL injury can damage surrounding tissues.
1. Risks of Delaying Treatment
Your risks of complications increase by 2% every week your knee goes untreated. The risks skyrocket for obese men, who face a 77% increased risk of meniscus tears from a 10-week delay.
Even with treatment, your risks of knee osteoarthritis increase significantly. Around 50% of those who undergo ACL reconstruction develop the condition within 12 to 15 years post-surgery.
2. 4 Risk Factors for a Torn ACL
Many people associate a torn ACL with contact sports like football. However, they can occur with any sudden pivoting motion, a quick start or stop when running or repetitive stress.
There are also four risk factors that increase your chances of a torn ACL:
- Being female: While the exact cause is unknown, differences in biomechanics might account for the discrepancy.
- Participation in certain sports: Those who play basketball, football, soccer, volleyball, downhill skiing and lacrosse are likelier to tear their ACL.
- Previously torn ACL: Surprisingly, the risk increases in both knees, not just the one with previous damage.
- Age: ACL tears most often occur between 15 and 45 when people are most active.
3. Other Common Knee Injuries
You’ll probably know it if you tear your ACL — the pain and swelling will be severe. However, here are some other common knee injuries you should be aware of that can cause similar symptoms, such as:
- Dislocation: This occurs when the bones of the knee fall out of alignment.
- Bursitis: Your bursae are small, fluid-filled sacs that cushion your ligaments, tendons and joints. They can become infected and inflamed due to injury or repetitive use.
- Tendonitis: This condition often affects the patellar tendon, which runs down the front of the leg, attaching your knee to your shin.
- Collateral ligament tears: The ligaments supporting the outside of the knee can also tear.
- PCL tears: Although rare, these can occur when extreme force puts pressure on a bent knee.
- ITB band syndrome: Common in runners, this injury occurs when the iliotibial band, a thick band of connective tissue running from your hip to your knee, rubs against the outside of the knee joint.
- Torn meniscus: Your meniscus acts as a cushion but can wear out or tear. It’s often affected by untreated ACL injuries, although this injury can occur independently of the ligament.
Diagnosing and Treating a Torn ACL
When you arrive at emergency services, the doctor will begin with a physical exam. They’ll perform the Lachman test, which registers increased tibial movement in relation to the femur when the knee is slightly flexed. While this examination is often sufficient to diagnose a torn ACL, your provider will likely follow up with an MRI to discern whether other injuries exist and their extent.
Doctors rank torn ACLs on a 3-point scale:
- Mild: Only a minor portion of the ligament is stretched but still provides stability.
- Moderate: More severe stretching that can make your knee feel loose.
- Severe: A complete tear resulting in severe instability.
If your torn ACL is mild to moderate, and your only activities are golf, walking and cycling, you may recover in a few weeks using the RICE formula: rest, ice, compression and elevation. You will probably need to wear a brace when engaging in activities to help support the injured joint, and you may have ongoing pain.
However, those that hope to return to jogging, running or competitive sports like boxing have few options other than surgery. Fortunately, new and improved techniques minimize incision size and the risk of complications. Your doctor will use an arthroscope or a small device with a camera to see inside your knee while using a computer to guide the procedure.
Average Recovery Time for a Torn ACL — When You Can Resume Activities
Here’s the good news first: you can fully recover from ACL surgery and return to competition. The bad? You will have a lengthy recovery and don’t want to push yourself too soon.
On average, it takes approximately six to nine months before you can return to your previous activity level. Many experts recommend waiting at least a full year before competing because of the risk of re-injury.
Please don’t think you’ll be on the couch watching Netflix all that time. You’ll be up and briefly walking around on crutches soon after surgery, although you’ll need household and driving help for at least two weeks post-op. During weeks three to six, your physical therapy begins in earnest. After that, you’ll gradually start building up to your previous activity level, taking baby steps.
Risks of Returning to Activity Too Soon
If you’re a football fan, you might remember Jerry Rice. This hall of famer shocked the gridiron world when he returned to play on week 15 following a torn ACL. Unfortunately, his recovery was incomplete, and he reinjured himself on the field, fracturing his patella and ending his already brief season.
Let’s face it: Being on the DL sucks. If you’re a hardcore athlete, you want to get back out there. However, if you value your long-term career and don’t want to spend more time in the hospital, follow your doctor’s orders and be mindful about your recovery.
How Long Does a Torn ACL Take to Heal
The prospect of a torn ACL causes most athletes to shudder. You need your knees to run and jump, and an injury can leave you permanently benched.
However, it is possible to recover fully. When you give your torn ACL as long as it needs to heal properly the first time, you significantly reduce your chances of future injuries.