What should I do if I think I have torn my ACL?

Man with his hands on his knee thinking what should I do if I've torn my ACL.

That painful pop. No one wants to hear it – much less feel it! Uh-oh, you may have just torn your ACL. A sudden jump, twist, fall, or turn can tear your anterior cruciate ligament, one of the bands of tissue that keeps the bones in your knee in place. If you think you’ve torn your ACL, here is what to do to reduce your pain and prevent your knee from incurring further damage.

If you think you’ve torn your ACL, here is what to do to reduce your pain and prevent your knee from incurring further damage.

What to do if you think you’ve torn your ACL

If you’ve torn or sprained your ACL, the first sign you’ll experience is pain, sometimes along with the telltale “pop” of tearing your anterior cruciate ligament. You may also experience:

  • Swelling that comes on rapidly
  • Loss of mobility and range of motion
  • Inability to bear weight on the affected knee
  • The feeling of “looseness” in the knee, like it might buckle if you put weight on it

The first thing to do is to get off of your knee. Sit down, take a rest, and take stock of how your knee feels. Intense pain, inability to bear weight, and sudden swelling are all signs that you’ve torn your ACL.

Call your doctor or orthopedic specialist right away. The sooner you make see your doctor, the sooner you can start to feel better.

Until you get to the doctor, the usual recommendation is the R.I.C.E. method – rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Stay off your leg as much as possible, and you may take over-the-counter pain medicine to manage pain until your appointment.

How to tell if your ACL is torn or sprained

ACL injuries are divided into two types – tears or sprains. To know which type of ACL injury you’re experiencing, you’ll need to see your doctor and have an imaging test done. Sometimes, sprains are accompanied by small tears, and knowing the exact extent of the injury is key to getting proper treatment.

What are the symptoms of a torn ACL?

Symptoms of an ACL tear and an ACL sprain are similar, so you must be seen by an orthopedic specialist to determine what injury you’ve incurred and receive proper treatment.

The common symptoms of a torn ACL include:

  • Popping sound at the time of injury
  • Pain
  • Instant swelling after the injury
  • The feeling of an unstable knee

Can you walk with a torn ACL?

You may be able to walk after tearing your ACL, especially if the tear is minor and there are no other injuries to your knee. But you should be aware that walking on a torn ACL can exacerbate the injury.

Your knee is less stable with a torn ACL, and it will affect your gait as well as how your knee moves and bears the weight of your body. Walking on a torn ACL can cause additional damage to your knee, such as tears to the cartilage of the knee and worsening the ACL tear.

In summary, the answer is yes. If you don’t have any other knee injuries and the pain and swelling go away, you may be able to walk in straight lines, go up and down stairs, and maybe even jog in a straight line.

How do you tear your ACL?

ACL tears are most common in athletes, though some patients tear their ACL in car accidents or falls. It is estimated that more than 200,000 Americans experience ACL tears every year playing sports such as basketball, tennis, football, skiing, and volleyball. About 70% of all ACL tears occur without impact with another player or object.

Most ACL tears are caused by quick side movements and turns, or sudden stops and changes in direction, all of which put a lot of pressure on the knee joint.

Can you tear your ACL without knowing?

Some people have little to no pain and little to no swelling, and they feel like they could keep playing and doing things. This means that sometimes when you tear your ACL, you may not even know it. It’s important to be careful when you feel discomfort in your knee and to see your doctor for a proper diagnosis.

Can a torn ACL get worse if I put off going to the doctor?

The intense pain of a major ACL injury often sends people to the doctor right away. But for a minor tear, you may be tempted to “wait it out” and see if your injury gets better on its own. We wholeheartedly recommend you do not do this. An ACL tear that is not treated will get worse, not better.

If left untreated, a small ACL tear will increase in size, causing more pain and increasing the laxity in the knee. Without a properly functioning ACL, the other structures of the knee experience greater strain, which causes further injuries to tissues in the knee. It is reported that 80% of patients with an untreated ACL tear go on to develop damage to the cartilage of the knee. This damage can eventually lead to osteoarthritis.

What are the nonsurgical treatments for an ACL tear?

Small ACL tears or ACL sprains may be treated without surgery. Your doctor may prescribe a term of physical therapy as well as rest, ice, compression, and elevation to help your knee heal on its own after an ACL injury. For people who do not participate in athletics, lifestyle changes are often recommended to avoid surgery as well as preventing further damage to the knee.

How long does an ACL tear take to heal without surgery?

There are times when an ACL tear can heal without surgery. Physical therapy uses special exercises to make muscles stronger. Rehabilitation can help repair the knee until it is close to how it was before it was injured. It can also reduce swelling and keep the knee mobile.

When you use rehabilitation, it will take you less time to heal than surgery, but you will need to routinely check in with your orthopedic doctor. Healing time takes about three months with this nonsurgical method.

What are the surgical treatments for an ACL tear?

Larger tears, and tears in athletes who are committed to regaining peak performance after tearing their ACL, almost always require surgery.

ACL reconstruction surgery involves removing the damaged part of your ACL and replacing it with a section of tendon taken either from your own body or from a donor. This piece of replacement tendon is referred to as a graft.

After ACL reconstruction surgery, you’ll undergo several weeks of recovery, rehabilitation, and physical therapy to restore full function to your knee. Recovery time for ACL surgery varies greatly depending on the person, sometimes taking as long as a year before the patient can return to pre-injury levels of play and performance.

Sticking to your doctor’s recommendations for rehabilitation and physical therapy will increase your chances of regaining full function of the knee and returning to normal athletic activities after ACL surgery.

Think you’ve torn your ACL?

Tennessee Orthopaedic Clinics helps athletes and non-athletes all over East Tennessee regain their knee function after an ACL tear. With offices all over East Tennessee, including Knoxville, Oak Ridge, Sevierville, and Lenoir City, our board-certified orthopedic surgeons are right nearby, so you can get the ACL treatment you need close to home. Schedule your consultation today.