Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury and Tear

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What Is an ACL Injury?

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) helps our knees move. When you injure the ACL — often with a tear — it compromises the stability of the knee.

This may cause balance troubles, buckling, or even reports of the joint giving out.

ACL injury or tear causes and risk factors

ACL tears are among the most common knee injuries sustained in sports. For this reason, athletes are more likely than nonathletes to develop an ACL injury.

Athletes at a higher risk for ACL injuries are those that play:

  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Basketball

Complications of ACL injuries

ACL injuries can lead to further joint and mobility trouble.

Because of the anatomical positioning and impact on the body, an ACL injury requires treatment to preserve:

  • Activity levels
  • Functioning
  • The ability to walk without pain

Why choose UPMC for treatment of ACL injuries?

  • UPMC has one of the highest-funded orthopaedic research departments in the nation, with access to ongoing clinical trials, particularly useful for those with ACL injuries.
  • Our surgeons use some of the most advanced technologies in orthopaedics, such as nonsurgical and surgical joint repairing techniques.
  • We offer expert orthopaedic surgery services and treatments to people of all ages to help them get back to enjoying their lives. 

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The main symptoms of ACL injuries are strongest and most present immediately following a suspected tear, sprain, or strain.

These symptoms include:

  • A loud “pop”
  • Feeling like the knee is slipping out of the joint
  • Swelling of the knee
  • Pain, especially with movement of the joint
  • Inability to, or difficulty walking

ACL Injury Diagnosis

Diagnosis of an ACL injury or tear is most effective within the first hour after injury.

An initial medical evaluation includes:

  • Assessment of the injury
  • Collection of medical history, with a heavy focus on prior knee injuries

Your doctor will then conduct a physical exam of the knee. This exam aims to gather data on the stability of your knee ligaments.

Based on the results of your exam and medical history, your doctor may order further tests to confirm a diagnosis of an ACL injury or tear.

Imaging tests for ACL injuries may include:

  • X-rays to help your doctor gain a closer look at the knee for changes in bone structure over time.
  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to help your doctor focus on the soft tissues around the knee for the presence of a muscle sprain or tear.

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Treatment Goals of ACL Injuries and Tears

Although the orthopaedic surgeons at UPMC create treatment plans for each individual's symptoms, the overarching goals for treating all ACL injuries focus on:

  • Restoring range of motion in the knee
  • Stabilizing the knee
  • Managing pain
  • Reducing activity during initial phases of injury

Types of ACL Injury and Tear Treatments

Depending on your desired lifestyle, your doctor may choose a nonsurgical or surgical treatment method to maximize your potential for future mobility.

Nonsurgical treatments for ACL injuries often begin with protective bracing, followed by:

  • A gradually implemented regimen of muscle-strengthening exercises for ACL injuries.
  • Physical therapy for a full explanation and recommendations for ACL injury rehabilitation.

Additional nonsurgical treatment options include pain medicines, as well anti-inflammatories — such as ibuprofen — to help speed recovery of the ACL injury.

In cases where you may hope to maintain or foster physical activity, doctors may recommend ACL surgery and physical therapy.

Common surgeries for ACL tears and knee injuries can include:

  • ACL repair or rebuilding
  • ACL reconstruction

Benefits and Risks of ACL Injury Treatment

Treatments for ACL injuries can prove very effective in preserving knee function and mobility. For that reason, it's vital to report any suspicion of ACL injury to your doctor right away.

ACL injury recovery

Following any sort of surgical treatment of an ACL injury, you will have to eliminate all weight bearing activities for three to six months, depending on your ACL tear or injury symptoms and medical history.

Rest periods and breaks from weight bearing activities are especially important for those hoping to return to physical activities. Failure to follow doctors’ orders of rest can lead to further knee problems and related complications. 

Learn more about treatments for ACL tears

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