One of the most common knee injuries is an anterior cruciate ligament sprain or tear.
Athletes who participate in high demand sports like soccer, football, and basketball are more likely to injure their anterior cruciate ligaments.
If you have injured your anterior cruciate ligament, you may require surgery to regain full function of your knee. This will depend on several factors, such as the severity of your injury and your activity level.
Bones are connected to other bones by ligaments. They act like strong ropes to hold the bones together and keep your knee stable. There are four primary ligaments in your knee.
o Medial and Lateral Collateral Ligaments, located on the side of the knee. They control the sideways motion of your knee and brace it against unusual movement.
o Anterior Cruciate and Posterior Cruciate Ligaments form a cross inside the knee joint. The cruciate ligaments control the back and forth motion of your knee.
About half of all injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament occur along with damage to other structures in the knee, such as articular cartilage, meniscus, or other ligaments.
Injured ligaments are considered "sprains" and are graded on a severity scale.
Grade 1 Sprains. The ligament is mildly damaged in a Grade 1 Sprain. It has been slightly stretched, but is still able to help keep the knee joint stable.
Grade 2 Sprains. A Grade 2 Sprain stretches the ligament to the point where it becomes loose. This is often referred to as a partial tear of the ligament.
Grade 3 Sprains. This type of sprain is most commonly referred to as a complete tear of the ligament. The ligament has been split into two pieces, and the knee joint is unstable.
Partial tears of the anterior cruciate ligament are rare; most ACL injuries are complete or near complete tears.
The anterior cruciate ligament can be injured in several ways:
Changing direction rapidly
Slowing down while running
Landing from a jump incorrectly
Direct contact or collision, such as a football tackle
Several studies have shown that female athletes have a higher incidence of ACL injury than male athletes in certain sports. It has been proposed that this is due to differences in physical conditioning, muscular strength, and neuromuscular control. Other suggested causes include differences in pelvis and lower extremity (leg) alignment, increased looseness in ligaments, and the effects of estrogen on ligament properties.
When you injure your anterior cruciate ligament, you might hear a "popping" noise and you may feel your knee give out from under you. Other typical symptoms include:
Pain with swelling. Within 24 hours, your knee will swell. If ignored, the swelling and pain may resolve on its own. However, if you attempt to return to sports, your knee will probably be unstable and you risk causing further damage to the cushioning cartilage (meniscus) of your knee.
Loss of full range of motion
Tenderness along the joint line
Discomfort while walking
Common Management Techniques
Treatment for an ACL tear will vary depending upon the patient's individual needs. For example, the young athlete involved in agility sports will most likely require surgery to safely return to sports. The less active, usually older, individual may be able to return to a quieter lifestyle without surgery.
A torn ACL will not heal without surgery. But nonsurgical treatment may be effective for patients who are elderly or have a very low activity level. If the overall stability of the knee is intact, your doctor may recommend simple, nonsurgical options.
Bracing. Your doctor may recommend a brace to protect your knee from instability. To further protect your knee, you may be given crutches to keep you from putting weight on your leg.
Physiotherapy. As the swelling goes down, a careful rehabilitation program is started. Specific exercises will restore function to your knee and strengthen the leg muscles that support it.
Rebuilding the ligament. Most ACL tears cannot be sutured (stitched) back together. To surgically repair the ACL and restore knee stability, the ligament must be reconstructed. Your doctor will replace your torn ligament with a tissue graft. This graft acts as a scaffolding for a new ligament to grow on.
Grafts can be obtained from several sources. Often they are taken from the patellar tendon, which runs between the kneecap and the shinbone. Hamstring tendons at the back of the thigh are a common source of grafts. Sometimes a quadriceps tendon, which runs from the kneecap into the thigh, is used. Finally, cadaver graft (allograft) can be used.
There are advantages and disadvantages to all graft sources. You should discuss graft choices with your own orthopaedic surgeon to help determine which is best for you.
Because the regrowth takes time, it may be six months or more before an athlete can return to sports after surgery.
Procedure. Surgery to rebuild an anterior cruciate ligament is done with an arthroscope using small incisions. Arthroscopic surgery is less invasive. The benefits of less invasive techniques include less pain from surgery, less time spent in the hospital, and quicker recovery times.
Surgery or No Surgery?
Active adult patients involved in sports or jobs that require pivoting, turning or hard-cutting as well as heavy manual work are encouraged to consider surgical treatment. This includes older patients who have previously been excluded from consideration for ACL surgery. Activity, not age, should determine if surgical intervention should be considered.
In young children or adolescents with ACL tears, early ACL reconstruction creates a possible risk of growth plate injury, leading to bone growth problems. The surgeon can delay ACL surgery until the child is closer to skeletal maturity or the surgeon may modify the ACL surgery technique to decrease the risk of growth plate injury.
A patient with a torn ACL and significant functional instability has a high risk of developing secondary knee damage and should therefore consider ACL reconstruction.
It is common to see ACL injuries combined with damage to the menisci, articular cartilage, collateral ligaments, joint capsule, or a combination of the above. The "unhappy triad," frequently seen in football players and skiers, consists of injuries to the ACL, the MCL, and the medial meniscus.
In cases of combined injuries, surgical treatment may be warranted and generally produces better outcomes. As many as half of meniscus tears may be repairable and may heal better if the repair is done in combination with the ACL reconstruction
Surgical treatment is usually advised in dealing with combined injuries (ACL tears in combination with other injuries in the knee). However, deciding against surgery is reasonable for select patients. Nonsurgical management of isolated ACL tears is likely to be successful or may be indicated in patients:
With partial tears and no instability symptoms
With complete tears and no symptoms of knee instability during low-demand sports who are willing to give up high-demand sports
Who do light manual work or live sedentary lifestyles
Whose growth plates are still open (children)
ACL reconstruction recovery usually takes about eight to nine months. At the end of this period the aim is to:
1. Experience pain-free range of movement
2. Have improved knee stability and function
3. Return to pre-injury level of physical activity
There will be several stages to your recovery with your treatment being progressive in nature and closely monitored by your Physiotherapist.