Game time injuries are always a risk in football, but few strike fear in the heart of an athlete like an ACL tear. These knee injuries can be devastating, and at one time spelled the end of an athlete’s career. But thanks to great strides in medical technology and rehabilitation, athletes are now bouncing back from ACL injuries in ways never before thought possible.
The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is the smallest of four main ligaments that make up the knee. Located directly behind the kneecap, it connects the femur to the tibia and acts as the knee’s primary stabilizer. The ACL is most vulnerable when the leg is straight or slightly bent and force is placed on the knee. In football, this typically happens during quick cutting motions, pivoting, slowing down when running, or landing from a jump. ACL injuries can also be the result of contact injuries, such as collisions or being clipped from behind (Source: Texas Sports Medicine).
Treatment for an ACL tear varies depending on the severity of the injury. A partial tear is obviously a more favorable diagnosis and, with physical therapy and bracing, often has a rehabilitation period of about three months. A complete rupture of the ACL is more complicated. The ligament cannot heal on its own and therefore requires surgery.
ACL reconstruction surgery is most commonly performed arthroscopically, which is less invasive and decreases surgical recovery time. During this procedure, the surgeon makes small incisions around the knee joint to insert a camera called an arthroscope and other surgical instruments. The torn ligament cannot be sewn back together, so it is removed and replaced with a graft. This graft could be the patient’s own tissue, such as a hamstring tendon or patellar tendon, or it could be tissue from a donor. The surgeon drills tunnels into the femur and the tibia and pulls the graft through to hold it in place. It is then secured with screws or staples. Over time, bone growth will fill in the tunnels, making the graft even more secure (Source: Medline Plus).
ACL reconstruction surgery is often performed as an outpatient procedure, but total recovery from the injury can take anywhere from six months to a year. Bracing may be necessary for a prescribed amount of time, and physical therapy will be needed to regain strength, stability and flexibility.
Although ACL injuries require a lengthy recovery time, they are no longer the career-ending injuries they were just a few decades ago. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, patients who undergo ACL reconstruction have 82 to 95 percent long-term success rates, and national averages show that 96 to 98 percent of athletes are able to return to their sport (Source: Texas Sports Medicine).
For more information about ACL injuries, prevention exercises and treatment options, talk to your orthopedist.