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Returning to Play After an Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injury or Tear

Athletes recovering from an ACL tear cannot rush, especially when they're eager to return to their sport.

While you may feel better in a few short months after ACL surgery, the new ACL still needs time to heal.

Before you get back in the game, your surgeon and physical therapist want to make sure that you've gone through proper rehab. And that your knee is strong enough to return to play safely.

Return-to-Play Testing

After you've passed all five phases of ACL surgery rehab, you'll have a series of exams and tests.

To clear you to return to play, your physical therapist will compare your operated leg to your other leg for:

  • Restored motion
  • Flexibility
  • Strength
  • Function

Your physical therapist will give your test results to your surgeon.

Your surgeon will look at the results to see if you've regained muscle strength and your ACL has fully healed. He or she will also look at the stability of your knee, and maybe imaging scans.

If your doctor doesn't clear you to return to play, he or she may ask you to:

  • Work with your physical therapist on certain areas to strengthen the leg.
  • Keep practicing agility drills.

After an ACL injury, it’s crucial to focus on:

  • Proper technique with changing directions and landing from jumps.
  • Muscle balance of the quads, hamstrings, and hip muscles.
  • Core strength.

Getting Back in the Game

Our Sports Medicine ACL Program experts use science-based return-to-play criteria. This lets us provide personalized, sport-specific training so athletes can safely return to sport.

When your surgeon clears you to return to play, you must ease into full and normal practice. This helps improve overall trust in your knee and your ability to play sports.

Studies show that within one year of ACL reconstruction surgery:

  • Only one-third of athletes return to their prior level of competition.
  • Less than 50 percent return to the same level of play within two to seven years.
  • Only 81 percent will return to any level of sport.

When cleared to return to play, your doctor may suggest wearing a brace while taking part in high-risk activities. The brace can help protect the injured leg from contact and boost confidence when getting back to the playing field.

Learn More About Returning to Play After an ACL Injury