Here's What To Expect If You're Having ACL Reconstruction

So you’ve been diagnosed with an ACL tear and need an ACL reconstruction. You’ve heard the ACL abbreviation before, but what does it refer to? The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is the ligament that connects your femur (thigh bone) to your tibia (shin bone). This ligament is composed of strong fibers of connective tissue and functions to stabilize the knee.  

A torn ACL is often the result of a sports injury. If you enjoy soccer or football, perform gymnastics, or enjoy downhill skiing or snowboarding, you’re at increased risk for this type of injury. It likely occurred when you pivoted or stopped suddenly or took a direct hit to the knee. 

The board-certified physicians at San Diego Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center Inc. in San Diego specialize in ACL reconstruction and have performed hundreds of these surgeries. If you’ve never had surgery before, here’s what to expect. 

Before surgery

Your physician gives you written and oral instructions prior to your surgery. You’ll need to stop taking certain medications for a week or two before surgery and stop eating and drinking the night before. 

During surgery

If you’re generally healthy, ACL reconstruction is considered an outpatient procedure, so you’ll have your surgery in either a surgery center or hospital, and you’ll go home the same day. 

You won’t feel anything during the surgery because you’ll be under general anesthesia. Your surgeon uses a minimally invasive technique called arthroscopy. He makes a small incision at the site and inserts an instrument called an arthroscope that is equipped with a camera and a strong light. He views the image of your knee joint on a computer screen. 

He removes the section of damaged ligament and replaces it with a graft — often a small section of your own hamstring or patellar tendon (autograft) or tissue from a cadaver (allograft). Patients who have torn their ACL may have also damaged other structures within the knee at the time of injury, so the surgeon may repair these other structures as well. For example, patients receiving ACL reconstruction often also need repair of the meniscus, a C-shaped piece of cartilage that acts as a shock-absorber within the knee. 

After surgery

Once you recover from the anesthesia, you practice using crutches before you go home, since you shouldn’t put any weight on the leg with the reconstruction. Your physician provides a knee brace that you’ll wear to protect the surgical site. 

Your physician may order a continuous passive motion (CPM) machine for you to use at home. The machine, padded for your comfort, gently moves your knee back and forth for a set time period. This prevents your knee from becoming stiff and developing scar tissue that can limit your range of motion. The gentle, passive motion also helps increase your circulation, reducing swelling and inflammation. 

You’ll use the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) to reduce swelling and pain. Keeping your leg elevated is important. Your physician prescribes a strong pain reliever for the first week or so, after which you’ll be able to use over-the-counter pain relievers as needed during recovery. 

Patients usually begin to put weight on the leg after two to three weeks. You’ll receive a prescription for physical therapy after your ACL reconstruction. It’s important to do the exercises at home that your therapist shows you during your appointments to ensure you regain full range of motion. 

Depending on your surgery, you’ll be walking normally within four to eight weeks. It’s important to clear the amount and type of physical activity you can do with your doctor to ensure proper healing. You don’t want to get right back out on the soccer field and reinjure your knee. 

Call or book an appointment online with San Diego Sports Medicine & Orthopaedic Center, Inc. for expert musculoskeletal care. 

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