Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries

If you think a sprained ankle is painful, then you definitely don’t want to have an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury in the knee. It not only gets high marks on the pain scale, but also can take weeks, and even months, to heal. Unfortunately, there are approximately 200,000 ACL injuries and 100,000 surgical ACL reconstructions performed annually.

The ACL is one of four ligaments that attach the thighbone to the shinbone. It runs diagonally in the middle of the knee and serves two purposes: prevent the shin bone from sliding out in front of the thigh bone and provide rotational stability to the knee. Most ACL injuries happen during sports activities that involve sudden stopping combined with a change in direction while running, jumping, pivoting or overextending the knee. The ACL also may tear following a blow to the side of the knee, such as from a football tackle. About half of ACL injuries occur along with a torn meniscus, the cartilage in the knee between the thighbone and shinbone. A common long-term complication is the early onset of osteoarthritis in the affected knee.

A torn ACL will make a loud popping sound and cause significant pain and begin swelling within hours of the injury. The knee will continue to feel unstable even after the swelling subsides. If you have injured your knee, you should wrap your knee with an elastic bandage and elevate the joint above the heart, apply ice about every two hours for 20 minutes at a time, and take pain relievers. Avoid moving the knee and do not return to sports or activities until your injury has been evaluated by a doctor.

Diagnosis of an ACL injury usually can be made following a physical exam. However, an X-ray may be done to look for any possible fractures or a magnetic resonance imaging scan can be ordered to look for damage to other ligaments or cartilage in the knee. Treatment will vary depending on the severity of the injury. A partially torn ACL may require going to physical therapy, modifying your activities and using a knee brace. This treatment approach usually will last at least three months.

An ACL that is completely torn cannot be sewn back together. Rather, the ligament can be surgically reconstructed using a piece of tendon taken from another part of the leg. Rehabilitation and wearing a knee brace will be necessary after surgery. Most people are able to return to sports activities in about six months.

To reduce your chance of an ACL injury before you hit the basketball court, head out to the soccer field or sign up for some flag football, you might want to keep these tips in mind:

  • Stay in shape year-round and incorporate conditioning exercises into your routine.
  • Make sure you use the right gear and that it fits properly.
  • Women should strengthen their hamstrings and quadriceps.
  • Use proper techniques while participating in sports or exercising.

For more information about ACL injuries, talk with your doctor or call 561-882-9100 for a free referral to an orthopedist at the Institute for Advanced Orthopedics.