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How Soon Can I Return to Play After an ACL Tear?

How Soon Can I Return to Play After an ACL Tear?

The health of your knees is no small thing when you’re an athlete. While there are many ways these large joints can become damaged, many athletes fear the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear the most, and for good reason.

At William Schell, MD, our orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Schell, specializes in knee injuries and repairs, and he’s helped a great number of athletes recover from ACL tears.

If you’ve torn your ACL and you want to know when you can return to your activity of choice, here are a few points to consider.

Your treatment decision

One of the most important decisions to make when you tear your ACL is whether to have us repair the tear surgically. To help with this decision, we use advanced imaging to determine the extent of the tear. 

If it’s minor, some rest and physical therapy may be sufficient to get you back in the game, but you’ll need to be patient as this ligament can be slow to heal and it may take a few months.

If your ACL has ruptured, which is a complete tear, your prognosis is somewhat different. Complete ACL tears rarely heal completely and soundly enough for an active lifestyle, which is why athletes generally opt for surgical repair.

Of the 200,000 ACL injuries that occur each year in the United States, it’s estimated that more than half choose a surgical solution so they can regain full use of their knees

Healing from surgery

If we perform an ACL repair, patience is key in getting you back to your previous activity level. In most cases, we prefer that you wait nine months to a year before getting back to full participation, but this timeline depends on how quickly your body heals and the sport you’re anxious to get back to.

For example, if you’re a golfer, your timeline may be much shorter than someone who plays tennis or other sports that require jumping and pivoting.

To give you an idea of the importance of not pushing things too quickly, one study found that young athletes who get back into the game before nine months after an ACL reconstruction were about seven times more likely to reinjure their knees than those who waited.

Rehabilitation is key

Another important factor in how quickly you can return to play is your participation in the rehabilitation process through physical therapy (PT).

Your PT regimen is designed to help you reach your activity goals, and we like to work in increments. During the first months after your ACL repair, you’ll work on strengthening and range-of-motion exercises. 

As you progress, we monitor how well your graft is holding up as we gradually increase the workload in the area. In many cases, we greenlight a limited return to play after six months if we feel that your quad and hamstring muscles are able to provide enough support for your knee.

At this point, you should be able to lunge and hop on your knee, which are two of our biggest tests. Once you’re able to perform these exercises, we can work toward unlimited participation over the next three to six months.

Again, this timeline is general and everyone heals at their own pace. If you participate fully in your rehab program, you should be able to accelerate your return to your sport.

If you have more questions about getting back into the game after an ACL tear, please contact our New York City office — on the Upper West Side on Columbus Circle — to schedule an appointment.

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