You’ve torn your ACL, now what?

By: Dr. Barry Kraushaar

The diagnosis of a torn ACL can be scary for any athlete. Fortunately, you can get back to your sport with proper evaluation and treatment. Here’s a better understanding of what you may be dealing with and your options.

Your knee is a hinge-type joint that is held together by ligaments. In the center of the knee are the Posterior (rear) and Anterior (front) Cruciate Ligaments (PCL and ACL). Together, these cables of collagen stabilize the knee when you pivot or perform sports. Unfortunately, the ACL is often vulnerable to tearing suddenly during a pivot/twist maneuver, making ACL tears a common sports injury. When an ACL tear occurs, a decision needs to be made about whether to live with a torn ligament, to repair it or to replace the ligament. It depends on patient function and future needs.

  • Living with a torn ACL: Some patients choose to live with a torn ACL. For younger people, it may not be advisable to live a lifetime with this ligament torn. Although in some cases the ACL ligament can scar onto the PCL and act stable, more often instability occurs and it should not be ignored. An unstable knee can develop secondary damage, such as meniscus cartilage tears, and over time this can result in early-onset arthritis.  For those who do not sense instability, an ACL-deficient knee may be treated with rehabilitation and a brace. A custom designed brace will fit more closely. When a knee already has arthritis, an ACL reconstruction may not only be unnecessary, but the surgery may actually “Capture” the knee and hasten the worsening of arthritis.
  • Repairing the ACL: Because the ACL ligament tends to spread into separate strands like a torn rope when it ruptures, a simple repair of this ligament is rarely possible. The torn remnant is usually rolled up or shortened and it is hard to make it attach to the place on the femur bone from where it usually detaches. On rare occasions, it may be possible to perform a micro-surgical repair of your own ligament and keep your own structure.
  • Reconstruction of the ACL:  The most common treatment for a torn ACL in an adult who has no arthritis is to replace the ligament. A replacement can be strong and long enough to bridge the area of ACL detachment. The ligament is routed through the center of the knee and fixed to the bones above and below so that it acts similar to the original. The success rate of this procedure is high, but not 100%.  
    • For older and less active patients, cadaver ligament graft can be used. It is less painful and has a quicker recovery, but there are reports that the failure rate is higher than using your own graft material.
    • For younger, active patients, the best success rates are achieved if you use your own Patellar tendon (in front of the knee) or Hamstring tendons on the inner part of the knee. The outcomes of these graft types are similar, so your surgeon may have preferences based upon their experience.
  • Rehabilitation from ACL surgery is individual for every patient but most cases finish doctor-supervised acre after three months. Return to sports occurs as late as nine months, depending on the type of activity.

ACL reconstruction techniques and methods are still evolving. The fellowship-trained Sports Medicine specialists at Northeast Orthopedics and Sports Medicine keep up with current trends and bring the latest treatment to you. If you’ve experienced a ligament tear, contact us to meet with our physicians and discuss treatment options available for you. 

If you do encounter an ACL or other orthopedic injuries, contact us today to find out what’s wrong and how we can help.