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ACL Tears and Athletes: Rehab and Recovery

A man with a female nurse as they go through a session of physical rehab.

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Kawhi Leonard, All-Star forward of the LA Clippers, recently underwent surgery to repair a partial tear of the ACL in his right knee. He was injured June 14th during Game 4 of the western conference semi-finals against the Utah Jazz and missed the final eight playoff games due to what his Los Angeles team called, “a sprained knee.” Leonard’s surgery was successful and a teammate says he’d like to see how far the Clippers can go in future playoffs with a healthy Leonard.

What is an ACL Tear?

The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is one of four strong ligaments connecting the bones of the knee joint. An ACL tear is an injury of the knee joint, which usually happens playing sports. It is often seen in high-profile athletes like Kawhi Leonard, Tiger Woods and Tom Brady. It is also one of the most common injuries among recreational athletes of all ages and ability. It usually happens from movements such as sudden stops, changes in direction, jumping and landing.

Diagnosing and Treating an ACL Tear

Many people report hearing and/or feeling a “popping” sensation in the knee when an ACL tear occurs. The knee may swell, feel unstable and be too painful to bear weight. It is important to see a doctor if you notice any of the following symptoms:

  • A deformed or odd appearance of your knee
  • Inability to support your weight on the affected knee
  • Knee pain or swelling that lasts more than 48 hours
  • Trouble standing or walking on the affected knee

An ACL tear is diagnosed by an orthopedic physician during an examination. Your doctor will assess your knee mobility, stability, strength and level of swelling. An x-ray may be needed to make sure there aren’t other injuries such as a broken bone. Advanced imaging such as an MRI may also be needed.

Depending on the injury, treatment may include physical therapy, a protective brace or surgery. Rehabilitation is often part of treatment after surgery.

Mark R. Zunkiewicz, MD, a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and fellowship trained sports medicine physician, and his team are here to help. He treats every patient like a VIP, whether they are a high-profile athlete like Kawhi Leonard , or a high school football player.

ACL Surgery

Depending on the extent of the injury, surgery may be necessary. ACL surgery is a reconstructive procedure to replace the torn ligament. It’s an outpatient surgery performed by an orthopedic surgeon. ACL surgery is recommended if:

  • More than one ligament is injured
  • There is a meniscus tear in the same knee and this tear is repairable
  • You’re an athlete and want to continue playing your sport
  • Your knee buckles during everyday activities

Before surgery, you’ll have several weeks of physical therapy to reduce pain and swelling, strengthen muscles and restore range of motion. If you have surgery with a stiff, swollen knee, you may not regain full range of motion after surgery.

Recovery Process

Since this is typically an outpatient surgery, prepare to go home the same day and arrange for someone to drive you. Before you go home, you will practice using crutches and your surgeon may have you wear a knee brace to protect you. You may be prescribed pain medication or told to take over-the-counter medications for pain relief such as Ibuprofen.

Follow your surgeon’s advice on how long to use crutches, when to ice your knee and when it’s safe to bear weight again.

Progressive physical therapy after ACL surgery helps to strengthen your muscles and improve flexibility. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises at home and/or with continued supervision .

A successful ACL surgery along with rehab usually restores your knee’s stability and function.

Safe Healing

By working with a Sports Medicine and Rehab specialist, athletes can learn the best training and exercise techniques to help them get back to the field after surgery — and to reduce the risk of future injuries.

“We can create an exercise plan focusing on the knee complex, hips and core that helps that is specific to you and your sport,” says David Garcia PT, DPT, OCS.

Our physical therapists can also work with you to learn technique and positioning for landing from jumps or pivoting quickly — the most common movements that ACL injuries occur during.

Our Orthopedic Team has everything you need to get you up and moving again as you recover from an ACL tear, with or without surgery. Your doctor will listen carefully to your symptoms and examine you. We have state-of-the-art diagnostic tests for injuries such as these including:

  • Arthrocentesis
  • Bone scans and bone density scans
  • CT scans
  • MRI
  • Ultrasound
  • X-rays

We will put together a personalized treatment plan to relieve your pain, restore mobility and get you back to your active lifestyle. Our orthopedic surgeons, rehab specialists, physical therapists and athletic trainers will help you regain your strength, flexibility and confidence to get you safely back on your feet.

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