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Recovery From Sports-Related Injuries
High contact sports are fun. Soccer, basketball, and football can be a great exercise or stress relief. But a bad twist or collision can quickly become one of the 8.6 million sports-related injuries yearly. One of the injuries athletes dread most is an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear. What is an ACL tear and ACL reconstruction? More importantly, when can athletes expect to be walking, running, or back on the field again?
When surgery is needed
Surgeons perform over 200,000 ACL reconstructions yearly. Thousands of more athletes experience sprains, requiring physical therapy. The ACL, along with 3 other ligaments, provide the knee with flexibility. People who are unlucky enough to get a grade 2 or grade 3 tear need to go under the knife. Especially if the hope is to play sports at a high level again.
The basics of reconstruction
Reconstruction is an outpatient procedure done by an orthopedic surgeon. The surgery requires tiny cuts in the knee so the surgeon can enter and replace the ligament. As the ACL cannot regenerate, patients need a new tendon to replace the torn one. After removing the damaged ACL, the orthopedic surgeon uses a tendon from another part of the body. In some cases, surgeons use a donor’s tendon.
First steps in recovery
There is a long road to recovery after surgery. For a few minutes each day post-surgery, patients will be able to stand and walk. At first, walking will be painful. The goal of the first 2 weeks is to reduce swelling and watch for complications. Keeping the foot elevated is key. Icing the knee, stretching, and massaging is also part of the process. After 4 weeks, patients get fitted with a knee brace.
Picking up the pace
After 4 weeks with no complications, patients should be in physical therapy and walking a bit faster and longer. The next step is to climb a few stairs. The aim is to regain the ability to absorb pressure on the knee. After 3-4 months, patients should be able to walk longer distances without crutches.
On the run
Running again takes several months of proper physical therapy. On average, the timeline for running could be 4-6 months. Until then, recovery consists of stretching, plyometric exercises, and massage therapy. When running resumes, athletes may feel some discomfort from the force on the knees.
Back in action
Several factors determine a return to playing sports again. Age, physical fitness, and the extent of the injury are some critical components. A 2017 study on ACL injury reconstruction and recovery states the average return to play (RTP) is 6-12 months. Even then, the performance of the affected knee won’t necessarily feel the same. Take the time after returning to the field to build up strength ease into previous peak levels.
ACL tears are not the end
No athlete wants an ACL tear. But the injury does not have to be the end of playing sports. Doctors recommend starting rehab and ACL reconstruction as soon as possible. With some patience during recovery, athletes will be walking, running, and playing sports again.