How can you tell if you tore your ACL?


If you had a traumatic event during sports, and afterwards your knee was really swollen, painful, stiff, and unstable, you might have had an ACL tear. Most people have at least heard of the ACL. If you watch sports, you know that when an athlete tears their ACL, they will probably miss the rest of the season. Contrast this with how it used to be, if an athlete tore their ACL it could be the end of their career. Even if you aren’t a pro athlete, you can still tear your ACL. In fact it is a somewhat common injury among high school athletes, especially in girls soccer and basketball. All it takes is a single misstep and twist of your knee in the wrong direction. It can happen while you are hiking Pikes Peak in Colorado Springs, or while you are playing hacky sack (I’ve seen this).

What is the ACL, and how do I know if I tore it?

The ACL is an acronym that stands for Anterior Cruciate Ligament. This is a ligament in your knee that stabilizes it. Specifically it prevents your shin bone from moving forward too much or rotating. There are a bunch of other ligaments in the knee such as the MCL, PCL, and LCL, which have some ability to heal on their own. The ACL can’t heal on its own, and is the subject of more research than you could ever imagine. Some say it’s the most researched topic in all of orthopedics! When someone tears their ACL, they usually land wrong from a jump or movement such that their landing leg is twisted inwards somewhat. They usually experience a lot of knee pain and swelling. The aftermath is a stiff knee that doesn’t quite feel as stable as it used to. If you had this happen to you, and all of these symptoms sound familiar, then you might have torn your ACL. The surefire way to see if your ACL is torn is to see your orthopedic surgeon, and have him examine you and order an MRI.

If I tore my ACL, how will this affect me?

In the short run it will cause you knee pain and stiffness. But with time the pain and stiffness will likely go away. Your knee will now be less stable, meaning that any unanticipated movement (like cutting while playing basketball or soccer), might be tough as your knee may feel unstable. Some people tolerate this well, while others do not.

What should I do about my torn ACL?

If your ACL is torn, it is not going to heal itself. Other areas of the body heal wonderfully, but this is not one of those areas. Even going inside the knee and putting sutures in the ACL won’t work, in other words you can’t repair it.To fix it you need to reconstruct it by basically putting in a new ACL. This is a hot area of orthopedics and the technology is wonderful. Everything can be done through small incisions. The question is whether to leave it alone or fix it. For young athletes, it makes sense to reconstruct it as they have a lot of living left to do, and are still playing sports. If your knee feels really unstable and it hurts, it also makes sense to fix it. However, if you are not playing sports or doing activities that involve cutting, and your knee is not bothering you that much, then there is more conversation to be had. You can certainly live without your ACL, heck you can even run without an ACL! Some say that getting your ACL reconstructed will save you from arthritis, but the research shows that this is simply not always true. An orthopedic surgeon that I trained with really put this in perspective for me. He was a pediatric orthopedic surgeon on his way to Ecuador for a medical mission trip. The topic of ACL reconstruction came up and I think he summed it up pretty well when he said, “ACL!? How many ACL reconstructions do you think they do in Ecuador?” Not many I suppose. Not many. I frequently see patients in my orthopedic practice in Colorado Springs who have had their ACL reconstructed.

I hope I was able to answer your questions about how you can tell if you tore your ACL. If you would like me to treat your torn ACL contact us below to make an appointment if you are in the Colorado Springs area. I also am available for virtual consults.

-Written by Dr. Daniel Paull

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