Whether it is on a ski slope, football field, basketball court or soccer field, the ACL ligament is critical to running, jumping or otherwise moving quickly on your feet.
The ACL is located in the middle of the knee, where it acts as a stabilizer for the knee and keeps the tibia (the shinbone) from sliding too far forward. Kyle Anderson, MD, a St. Joseph Mercy Oakland orthopedic surgeon, says that while ACL tears are widely discussed within the context of professional sports, it is an injury that can strike athletes at all levels, including in high school.
Dr. Anderson should know. Not only does he specialize in orthopedic sports medicine and knee, shoulder and elbow reconstruction, he has treated hundreds of professional athletes, as well as many collegiate and recreational athletes.
People often hear the ACL pop when it tears or breaks, Dr. Anderson says. Pain, swelling, tenderness and loss of motion are other symptoms. The leg is usually, but not always, unstable and it may become too painful to bear weight.
What causes an ACL injury?
According to Dr. Anderson, a person can injure their ACL in a number of ways, such as:
- Changing directions rapidly
- Stopping suddenly
- Falling backward as the lower leg moves forward
- Slowing down while running
- Landing incorrectly from a jump
- Having direct contact or collision with another player or object
ACL injuries are common in athletes, and they can happen to anyone.
Treatment options for an ACL injury
An ACL tear can end an athlete’s career if left untreated or if improperly treated. How an ACL injury is treated depends on several factors, including whether another part of the knee is affected—which happens about 50 percent of the time.
“In certain patients, braces and physical therapy may be all the treatment that is needed,” says Dr. Anderson. “In many cases, surgery is best.”
Surgeons usually rebuild the ACL by using another tendon taken from elsewhere in the body—such as from a hamstring or quadriceps. It’s an arthroscopic procedure that uses very small incisions.
“Surgery should not be the first option; however, it should be considered if there is a high degree of injury, if a patient is young or if a patient anticipates performing at a high physical level in the future,” Dr. Anderson says. “Whether treatment involves surgery or not, rehabilitation is critical to your recovery and effectiveness on the field.” If you injure your ACL, an orthopedic specialist will take an individualized approach to your care, taking into account the degree of injury and your expected activity level in the future. Surgery and/or a progressive physical therapy program can get you back on the field playing the sports and doing the activities that you love.