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A Guide to ACL Injury Treatment and Prevention for Athletes



a shot from the ankles down of a mans feel on pavement

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the key ligaments that helps stabilize the knee joint. ACL injuries are unfortunately very common, especially in athletes who participate in pivoting sports like football, soccer, and basketball. 


An ACL tear occurs when the ligament is overstretched or torn, causing knee instability. Without the ACL to stabilize the knee, the tibia can slide forward in relation to the femur, resulting in pain, swelling, and impaired function. 


ACL injuries can have a devastating impact on an athlete's career. The injury often requires reconstructive surgery and an extensive rehabilitation period lasting 6-12 months. Even after recovery, some athletes are never able to return to their pre-injury level of performance. 


Epidemiological studies show that there are approximately 200,000 ACL reconstruction surgeries performed each year in the United States. The highest incidence is seen in young athletes between 15-25 years old who participate in sports with cutting and pivoting movements. Females have a 2-8 times higher rate of ACL injury compared to males playing the same sport. 


With proper treatment and rehabilitation, many athletes are able to make a full recovery and return to sports after an ACL tear. However, there is also considerable research focused on prevention strategies to reduce the risk of these injuries in the first place. 


Anatomy of the ACL 


a therapist stretching a childs knee out

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the key ligaments that helps stabilize the knee joint. It is located in the center of the knee, crossing from the backside of the femur (thigh bone) to the front of the tibia (shin bone). 


The ACL runs diagonally through the interior of the knee, preventing the tibia from sliding out in front of the femur and providing rotational stability to the knee. It is composed of strong, fibrous connective tissue and receives blood supply from the middle geniculate artery. 


The main function of the ACL is to resist anterior translation of the tibia. It provides approx. 85% of the restraining force that prevents the tibia from moving forward under the femur. The ACL also limits tibial rotation and plays an important secondary role in preventing varus and valgus stress on the knee. 


With its critical function in stabilizing knee movement, damage to the ACL can significantly impact stability and function of the knee joint. Understanding the anatomy and role of this important ligament provides context on the challenges of ACL injury and reconstruction. 


Mechanism of Injury 


The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the most commonly injured ligaments in the knee. ACL injuries often occur during sports that involve sudden stops, jumping, and changes in direction. There are two main mechanisms that can cause an ACL tear: 

a woman walking toward a therapist with crutches and a knee brace on

Contact Injuries 

Contact injuries occur when there is a direct blow to the knee, often by another player. Examples include a tackle in football, a slide into the base in baseball, or a collision with another skier. The impact from the contact twists the knee joint and strains the ACL beyond its limits, causing it to tear. 


Non-Contact Injuries  

Non-contact ACL injuries occur without any contact from another player. They often happen when an athlete plants their foot to change direction or land from a jump. Rapid deceleration combined with knee hyperextension or inward rotation can stretch and tear the ACL. Female athletes are more prone to non-contact ACL injuries compared to males. 


There are several risk factors that can predispose an athlete to an ACL injury: 

  • Previous ACL injury 

  • Narrow femoral notch 

  • Female gender 

  • Ligament dominance (reduced neuromuscular control) 

  • Quadriceps and hamstring muscle imbalance 

  • High BMI 

  • Improper landing mechanics 




Diagnosing an ACL injury begins with a thorough medical history and physical exam. The physician will ask about the details of the injury, such as the mechanism, the symptoms experienced, and the ability to walk afterwards. 

a person sitting in a hospital gown

On physical exam, doctors will check for: 


  • Joint instability - Lachman test, anterior drawer test, and pivot shift test are used to check the integrity of the ACL. A positive result indicates excessive forward movement of the tibia and suggests an ACL tear. 

  • Swelling - Effusion or swelling in the knee joint points towards internal derangement. 

  • Range of motion - Loss of full extension can indicate a bone bruise or loose body in the joint. 

  • Tenderness - Palpating the joint line will elicit point tenderness. 

  • Ligament integrity - Varus and valgus stress tests at 0° and 30° check the medial (MCL) and lateral (LCL) collateral ligaments. 

  • Meniscal injury - McMurray's test assesses meniscal tears. 

  • Other ligaments - Posterior drawer, posterior sag and dial tests check the PCL. 


If clinical exam suggests an ACL tear, imaging will confirm the diagnosis and assess concomitant injuries. Standard X-rays allow evaluation of fractures and alignment. MRI gives the most accurate assessment of intraarticular structures like the ACL graft, menisci and articular cartilage. 


Treatment Options 


The two main treatment options for an ACL injury are nonsurgical rehabilitation and surgical reconstruction. The decision between nonsurgical and surgical management depends on several factors: 


  • Age and activity level of the patient 

  • Degree of instability experienced. 

  • Presence of any associated injuries to the knee 

  • Patient's willingness and ability to complete rehabilitation. 


Nonsurgical Rehabilitation 


Nonsurgical rehabilitation may be appropriate for patients who are lower demand, older in age, or have a partial ACL tear. The goals of nonsurgical treatment are to restore range of motion, improve strength, and maximize function while avoiding instability. This type of treatment typically involves physical therapy with a focus on closed kinetic chain exercises, neuromuscular training, and core stability. Patients considering conservative management should understand that there is a risk of instability and greater chance of developing osteoarthritis over time. 


Surgical Reconstruction 


Surgical reconstruction is recommended for younger, active patients involved in pivoting sports, those with a complete ACL tear, or those who have persistent instability after an initial trial of rehabilitation. Timing of surgery is also an important consideration. Acute ACL reconstruction is generally performed once range of motion and swelling have improved, often within 3-6 weeks of injury. Delayed reconstruction can be performed several weeks to months after the injury to allow for return of normal knee motion and strength. 


There are several graft choices available for ACL reconstruction including: 


  • Patellar tendon autograft 

  • Hamstring tendon autograft 

  • Quadriceps tendon autograft 

  • Allograft from a cadaveric donor 


The choice of graft depends on several factors including surgeon preference, patient activity level, and co-existing knee pathology. 


Post-Op Rehab Protocol 


The post-op rehab protocol after ACL reconstruction surgery is crucial for regaining strength and range of motion. The rehab is typically divided into several phases: 


Early Phase (Weeks 1-2) 


a woman holding a clipboard with the month of January's calendar on it

Goals during the first couple weeks after surgery include: 


  • Controlling pain and swelling 

  • Restoring full knee extension range of motion 

  • Activating quadriceps muscles  

  • Gaining control of leg lifts and other basic movements without compensation 

  • Using crutches or other assistance for walking 

  • Wearing a hinged knee brace to protect the graft 


Rehab during this phase involves frequent range of motion exercises, patellar mobilizations, heel slides, quad sets, straight leg raises, and other basic strengthening moves. Elevation, ice, compression, and over-the-counter medication can help reduce swelling and pain. 


Intermediate Phase (Weeks 3-9) 


Goals during this phase include: 


  • Eliminating any remaining swelling/inflammation 

  • Improving knee flexion range of motion 

  • Restoring normal gait pattern without crutches/brace 

  • Building lower body strength, power, and endurance 

  • Enhancing balance and proprioception 

  • Developing cardiovascular fitness through non-impact exercises 


Rehab focuses on progressive strength training, increased range of motion, balance exercises, cardio conditioning, and gait training. Exercises may involve resistance bands, cable machines, bike, elliptical, and hydrotherapy. 


Advanced Phase (Weeks 10+) 


The focus shifts to: 


  • Continuing to improve strength, power, and endurance  

  • Developing agility and plyometric ability 

  • Performing sports-specific drills 

  • Testing functional movements 

  • Assessing psychological readiness to return to sport 


Rehab introduces jumping, running, cutting, and other dynamic actions. The criteria to return to sports involves passing strength tests and functional clearing tests. Even after clearance, a gradual return to sports is advised over a period of months. 


Prevention Strategies for ACL Injury Treatment and Prevention for Athletes


scrabble tiles that spell 'keep safe'

Preventing ACL injuries should be a priority for athletes, coaches, and medical professionals. While ACL injuries can happen unexpectedly, there are steps that can be taken to reduce risk. 


Neuromuscular Training 


Neuromuscular training focuses on improving coordination, balance, strength, and agility through exercises that challenge muscles and nerves to work together. Programs often incorporate elements like balance boards, agility ladders, jumping and landing technique drills, strength training, and core stability exercises. Studies show neuromuscular training can reduce ACL injury risk by enhancing knee stability and control during dynamic movements. 




Plyometric exercises involve quick, explosive movements to activate muscles. This type of training is commonly used to improve vertical leap, speed, and agility in sports like basketball and soccer. Plyometrics may also help strengthen muscles to dynamically stabilize the knee joint. Examples include box jumps, broad jumps, bounded hops, and lateral leaps. Proper form is essential to reduce injury risk when performing plyometrics. 


Bracing/Support Devices 


Knee braces, sleeves, and taping may offer some external support and proprioceptive feedback to help avoid excessive movements. However, research on the effectiveness of bracing is inconclusive. While they shouldn't replace neuromuscular training, some athletes opt to use a brace after ACL surgery or as a precautionary measure during sports. Consider fit and comfort when selecting a brace. 


Return to Sport Considerations 

a runner crouched at the start of a race

Returning to sports after ACL reconstruction surgery requires patience and caution. The criteria for return to sport varies, but generally includes achieving full knee range of motion, at least 90% quadriceps strength compared to the uninjured leg, completing functional sport-specific training, and passing return-to-sport testing. 


Most experts recommend waiting at least 9 months after surgery before returning to pivoting sports like soccer, football, or basketball. This allows sufficient healing time for the graft to incorporate. Returning too soon increases the risk of re-injury, with young athletes under 25 being especially vulnerable. 


Re-injury rates after ACL reconstruction surgery are estimated to be 15-25% within 2 years. The highest incidence occurs within the first year. Factors associated with a greater risk of re-injury include returning to sport before 9 months, inadequate rehabilitation, weakness/muscle imbalances between legs, and resuming intense sports too soon. 


Therefore, it is essential that athletes strictly adhere to rehabilitation protocols and timelines before being cleared for full sports participation. They should demonstrate both physical readiness based on strength and function tests, as well as psychological readiness. Gradual return to sport progressions under medical supervision can help ensure a successful transition. 


Long-Term Outcomes 


a man looking at papers on a corkboard

An ACL injury and the resulting instability of the knee joint can lead to long-term complications such as osteoarthritis and diminished quality of life. 


Osteoarthritis is common following ACL injuries, with studies showing at least 50% of individuals developing osteoarthritis within 10-20 years after the injury. The reasons for increased osteoarthritis risk include: 


  • Altered knee biomechanics after ACL injury and reconstruction. This leads to abnormal forces on the cartilage and bones. 

  • Meniscus and cartilage damage that frequently occur with ACL tears. This results in less shock absorption in the knee.  

  • Quadriceps muscle weakness and atrophy after the injury. The quadriceps help stabilize the knee joint. 


The development of osteoarthritis after an ACL tear is associated with long-term functional limitations and disability. Individuals are at higher risk for pain, stiffness, swelling, and loss of knee motion. This can make activities like walking, exercising, and performing daily tasks more difficult. 


ACL injuries, especially when they cause instability in the knee, can also negatively impact an individual's quality of life long-term. People who have sustained an ACL injury may experience restrictions in activity, changes in occupation, limitations in sports participation, and increased risk of depression. Reconstructive surgery and structured rehabilitation can help stabilize the knee and allow return to an active lifestyle. However, some may still have persistent symptoms like pain, weakness or lack of confidence in the knee. Continuous rehabilitation exercises and avoiding reinjury can help maximize outcomes. 


Overall, an ACL tear is a significant injury that can have prolonged consequences on the knee joint. However, appropriate treatment and dedicated rehabilitation can reduce complications like osteoarthritis while also improving long-term quality of life. 


Future Research 


a female scientist examining a petri dish

Ongoing research aims to improve long-term outcomes for ACL reconstructions. Some key areas under investigation include: 


Graft Choice Comparisons 


  • Studies comparing graft types like patellar tendon, hamstring, and quadriceps tendon autografts. Research is evaluating failure rates, stability, function, and complications for each graft choice.    

  • Allografts from cadaver donors are also being compared to autografts. However, there are concerns about higher failure rates with allografts especially in younger patients.    

  • Synthetic grafts were previously studied but had high failure rates. New synthetic materials are being developed and may emerge as options in the future. 


Advanced Repair Techniques 


  • Primary repair focuses on suturing and healing the torn ACL rather than fully reconstructing it. This is currently reserved for proximal ACL tears in pediatric patients, but techniques are advancing.    

  • Partial repairs may be possible in some cases rather than fully reconstructing the ACL. This could reduce graft site morbidity.    

  • Growth factors, stem cells, platelet rich plasma, and other biologics are being studied to try to improve ACL graft healing and incorporation.    

  • Less invasive surgery with smaller incisions may reduce pain and speed recovery. Arthroscopic and minimally invasive techniques continue to progress. 


The main goals are to find techniques that result in less donor site morbidity, faster recovery, lower failure rates, and ideally improved long-term joint health. 

an image of a blue sky with clouds

In conclusion, the management of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries represents a complex, yet critical aspect of sports medicine. Given the ACL's vital role in stabilizing the knee, injuries to this ligament not only disrupt athletic careers but also significantly impact long-term joint health and quality of life. While surgical reconstruction remains the standard treatment for active individuals and those experiencing instability, advancements in non-surgical options and rehabilitation techniques continue to evolve, offering hope for improved outcomes. Moreover, the focus on preventive strategies highlights the importance of neuromuscular training and proper technique in reducing the incidence of ACL injuries. Ongoing research into graft types, surgical innovations, and comprehensive rehabilitation protocols promises to refine current practices, aiming to reduce re-injury rates and enhance recovery processes. As we advance our understanding and technology, the goal remains to return athletes to their highest level of performance while minimizing future risks to their knee health. Thank you for taking the time to read this guide to ACL injury treatment and prevention for athletes.


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