An ACL injury sounds like something that would only happen to an athlete, but Brandon Fites, MD, orthopedic and sports medicine specialist, says they’re more common than you think. Everyone from high school and recreational athletes to farmers and ranchers can suffer an ACL injury.
Located in your knee, the anterior cruciate ligament helps hold your thigh bone and shin bone together and promotes movement.
Out of the hundreds of ACL tears and ruptures Fites and his team at Avera Orthopedic Surgery Specialists see each year, most are non-contact injuries. “When the player or person pivoted or changed direction, the quadriceps and hamstrings didn’t absorb the force,” explained Fites. “Rather, the momentum of the person’s movement carried through to the ACL, causing a tear.”
Athletes most at risk for ACL injuries are those who change direction quickly in the game, such as football, basketball and soccer players. Female soccer players have the highest rate of ACL tears, added Fites.
People know right away they have a serious injury because of the intense pain and weakness. Some often describe a “popping” sensation. And because the ACL is living tissue, it bleeds and causes swelling in the knee.
While most people rush for medical attention, some endure the pain instead. “After a week, the pain subsides but leaves a very unstable knee,” said Fites. “A farmer walking in the field may experience weakness and loss of motion; his knee may buckle for a moment, but he doesn’t fall completely.”
It’s after these situations when people look for medical attention. “If they’re experiencing instability, that’s when we see people one or two years after injuring their ACL.”
The ACL cannot repair itself on its own. A complete tear, for example, must be reconstructed through surgery. To reconstruct the ACL, Fites uses a tendon from the patient to remake the ligament. However, few patients — particularly the older population — may elect not to have surgery if their injury was less severe and doesn’t pose any limitations in daily activities. Instead, medication and/or physical therapy can help strengthen the knee.
Fortunately, ACL injuries can be avoided if certain training is used, especially by athletes.
“We have found plyometric exercises to be effective, such as single-leg hops and box jumping,” said Fites. “Plyometric exercises train the muscles to contract on time, protecting the ACL from absorbing the force when changing direction.”
Anyone can try these leg-strengthening exercises to help prevent injury:
- Box steps — stepping up, onto a sturdy box
- Taking the stairs
- Partial lunges — taking one large step forward and then lowering into a 45-degree angle
- Partial squats — squatting at a 45-degree angle
- Heel raises — rise onto the balls of your feet and then lower your heels to the floor
Please consult your physician or an orthopedic provider about proper ways to manage ACL injuries or knee pain.