Having an ACL reconstruction can throw a major wrench into your life. The surgery is complicated, and the rehab program can feel daunting. With a projected return to sport timeline hovering around 9 months to a year depending on your injury, it can feel like you are destined for a year of struggle.
This is a common concern before surgery, and a common fear in the first few weeks after surgery. Your knee is swollen, walking is a chore, and sometimes you even need to wear a big bulky brace. The good news is, with proper rehabilitation, you should be back to the gym in a much shorter timeframe.
Approximately over 250,000 people tear their ACL every year, with the most at-risk population being young female athletes.1 Despite being a common injury, every ACL reconstruction rehabilitation is different. Protocols depend on graft type, concomitant injuries like meniscus or MCL, and surgeon preference. For this reason, ACL protocols need to be a combination of both criteria-based and time-based. From a criteria-based perspective, physical therapists need to make sure athletes can get back to squatting, jumping, landing, cutting, and all other sport-related tasks with good mechanics to set them up for success as they return to sports. From a time-based perspective, physical therapists need to consider tissue healing time and appropriate tissue loading. Each athlete achieves their objective criteria at different times. It can take anywhere from 6 months to 24 months post op for athletes to get back to full participation, with a majority of athletes returning to sport between the 9- and 12-month mark.
“I don’t really have the words right now, definitely not the right ones at least,” this was the quote from Odell Beckham Jr. following his 2nd ACL tear during Superbowl LVI. Most people know that an ACL tear is a common knee injury that requires a long, tenacious recovery. Once an ACL is torn, the risk of re-tear or tearing the opposite side is 20-35% more likely4. The above statistic may be alarming and is why ACL reconstruction rehabilitation needs to be taken very seriously.
Healing time and recovery following anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery may be based on multiple factors, which can encompass everything from prior fitness level to activity goals, surgical procedure, and post-operative protocol guidelines. However, there are a few general guidelines common to many patients, and the timeline below offers a reference for post-surgical expectations following an ACL injury.