The First 6 Recovery Steps To Do Immediately After Tearing Your ACL

If you know, or suspect, you have just torn your ACL than let me first say I am sorry, after experiencing 2 ACL tears and recoveries I know how big of an impact it can have on the next 12+ months of your life. But hopefully I can help you get your recovery started on the right foot…

Now first things first, how do you know if you tore your ACL? Well to be fair there is no way of knowing until you get an MRI but you are likely suspecting you have torn it based on answering yes to some of the following…

  1. Did your knee twist and you hear/feel a pop?
  2. Did your knee “give out” and you fell?
  3. Has it swollen up significantly? (it doesn’t always swell up like a balloon)
  4. If you are able to walk on it does it feel “unstable”?
  5. Did you feel extreme pain (this doesn’t always happen) but a torn ACL can bring the toughest competitors to the ground in incredible pain.

Here is a video showing a Doctor talk about diagnosing an ACL tear…

Now if you suspect you tore your ACL here are the first 7 steps of the long recovery that you need to get started on right away.

 

Step 1 – The Crucial R.I.C.E.

Step 1 is likely not a surprise and if you have had many injuries before than you are probably already doing this. Here are some tips on how to get the most out of the typical Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevate.

ACL Injury Specific RICE Tips…

Rest – If you suspect you have torn your ACl than make sure to stop all activity that could put your knee in an unstable position.  If you are in pain walking then I recommend using crutches until your doctor tells you otherwise. Instability incidents (knee giving out) and further damage to your meniscus is a potential concern right now.

Tip from reader Ricky

Stopping sports activities is a must before getting the diagnose from doctor. I know quite a few guys start playing basketball after the swelling went away and kept getting injured, only to have large portion of their meniscus removed. Every time I heard it, I felt their pain.

Ice – Using ice wraps make sure to fully ice your knee 30 minutes on and 30 minutes off. For an advanced technique on how to reduce swelling remarkably quickly have a look at this Knee Swelling Tip

Compression – I unfortunately don’t have any unique tip here (if you have one please include it in the comment section). Any full wrap which allows you to ice and provides a comfortable amount of compression without cutting off circulation is a big help. Compression Knee Braces will likely be too tight and not allow for adequate icing.

Elevation – This one is easy…get your knee into a comfortable position where it is sitting at a higher elevation than your heart. One cautionary piece of advice – ensure that your foot is above your knee…if it isn’t your ankle/foot will swell which can cause complications.

Step 2 – Book a Doctors Visit

Either go to the ER or book a doctor’s appointment with a Sports Medicine Doctor. Because torn ACLs can be difficult to diagnose I would try and get a Sports Medicine Doctor as they would have more experience with torn ACLs.

 

Step 3 – Set Yourself Up For Sleeping

Sleeping the first nights after a knee injury can be painful. Take some anti-inflammatory pain medication to help control the pain/swelling. My tips for sleeping after a knee injury include…

  1. Ice immediately before trying to sleep
  2. Don’t use heavy blankets/comforters as the weight of them can twist your foot/knee
  3. Take anti-inflammatory pain medication before sleeping
  4. Set up your bed so your knee is above your heart and your ankle is above your knee
  5. Ensure you have an un-obstructed path to the lightswitch and bathroom (I learned this the hard way waking up and walking into the comforters I had moved off the bed(see #2))

 

Step 4 – Get an X-Ray

Likely at your doctor’s appointment you will be able to get an X-Ray. If you have torn your ACL an X-Ray won’t give you any information but it is often required before you can get an MRI.

 

Step 5 – Get an MRI

As soon as you can get an MRI this is the only way to know for sure if you have torn your ACL. Once you get your MRI you should be able to get the results in 1-2 days.

ACL-Tear-MRI

Tip from Alexandra

So while I was waiting for my MRI results to come through I varied my usual exercise routine and instead started doing hot bikram yoga (which I had never tried before and was coincidentally created by Bikram Choudhury as a result of a knee injury which he acquired through a weight lifting accident), and also focusing on upper body and core strength, along with cycling on an exercise bike., All of which kept me relatively sane during a quite a difficult period! From a personal perspective, it would have been helpful to have been able to share exercise tips/do’s and don’ts etc.

You can keep on exercising if it makes you happy – just vary what you’re doing in order to accommodate your new injury.

Step 6 – Decide if Surgery is Right for You

Now that you know whether you have a torn ACL or not it is time to decide if you are going to get ACL surgery. This decision is not always straightforward and is unique for everyone, here was my reasoning for choosing to have ACL surgery twice.

 

These are the first steps I advise people to do after you suspect you have torn your ACL. Each of us will be different with how much pain we are in and damage we have done so adapt the above steps to your needs.

Again let me say that if you suspect you tore your ACL I sympathize with the pain you are in but know with patience and work you will be able to return to all your favourite activities. To help others recovering from ACL surgery, consider a healthcare degree from Sacred Heart U and get started today.



The Top 5 At Home Exercises
I did that helped get me walking 4 days after surgery

Click Here to see the exercises

Comments

  1. These are great tip Jon. The one I would add is start looking into your insurance options. It would be terrible to go ahead planning on having surgery and then realize the financial cost would be too much.

    This is exactly what happened to me. I have torn my ACL but don’t have $20k to get surgery so I have to wait until I have a job that covers me.

    I cant tell you how much this sucks! But I really appreciate all the work you have done on this site and when I do have surgery I feel ready for it thanks to you.

    Jason

    • Jon Haver says:

      @Jason Sorry to hear the cost is so prohibitive. Hopefully everything will work out for you.

      If the knee is still relatively stable you can typically continue being reasonably active with a torn ACL. After my first tear I didn’t get surgery for over a year and was cleared to ski during the winter by my Doctor.

      Best of luck with your recovery.

      Jon

  2. NANCY EVSEEFF says:

    Fell when standing on the slopes. Bummer. Someone should have told me that PT would make it a very functional knee but might always have some deficits. Feel my PT has pushed me too hard as if I were an olympic athlete. I am an advanced skier but I would recommend that a patient tell the PT just what they want to get back to. This PT has screwed up my back and that is really painful. Knee ok although it will still take time – on my own at my pace. I am 73 and in great shape, but one should adjust one’s expectations.

    • Jon Haver says:

      @Nancy – 73 and planning to return to skiing after ACL surgery….we are all humbled. Good job and good reminder to all to make sure we recover at our own pace.

      Thanks for sharing a little about your story!

  3. Great advice. I think that is very important to create a support system while you are recovering. Therapy requires physical, mental, and emotional strength. Start looking for a job as soon as you can where you can work sitting down and not put too much strain on your knee. Buy a book that can help you get tips and confidence towards full recovery. Amazon has a few books that can help. If you have torn your meniscus in addition to ACL, the swelling will be your hardest battle ground. The swelling creates a weak joint. Is super important to reduce the swelling as much as possible so your physical therapy can be successful. Bike and swimming is a work out. In addition it will help you feel better about your health.
    Finally, therapist will only point you in the right direction to recovery, but the work must be done by you! You can do it!

  4. I think you got them all. Your post will definitely help someone if they get to read this right after they hurt themselves.

  5. Jonathan netzel says:

    Good advice. One thing that I would consider if you have a wait before sugery is see a physical therapist and begin exercises To build muscle. One of the most important things is getting your knee in the best shape Possible before surgery. After surgery your knee will atrophy quite a bit , the exercises will give you the muscle memory to recover faster and get back to your normal schedule.

  6. manjunath says:

    Its been a year since i had been my surgery. now i will tell u what went wrong with me so that u can know some important things.

    1. i had my surgery after 2 years because of negligence and whole lot of other problems.thats bcoz my previous doctor was not good and that stupid doctor could not detect it, so see a good doctor and after my surgery, my doctor told me that i can probably get ARTHRITIS in the future bcoz of the late surgery. so if u want 2 get ARTHRITIS, neglect visiting the doctor and having a surgery or whatever.

    2. for the surgery, research well and see a good surgeon. when i had my surgery, i was desperate and didn’t do my research and had gone with this doctor who didn’t give me good support after the surgery as he gave my a home rehab protocol which was short of adequate information and of course i should have asked him which i didn’t do.

    3. the rehab program sucks, you would never enjoy and start getting despair. thats the reason why i couldn’t religiously follow the protocol and now its a mess. i havent recoverd well after this.

    4. importantly, accept the facts. its true that the incidence of ACL TEAR is 1 in 8000 in men and 1 in 4000 in women. and you start saying WHY ME. this is never gonna help, so BE DETERMINED AND wherever possible multitask lie say whenever you are doing the exercises, for example, you can read a book, or watch movies, etc. this multitasking is advisable only after a certain time, bcoz in the initial stages, the knee is still not good, so u can lose concentration and mess up evrything, so do what is best for u may be by asking ur doctor or physiotherapicst.

  7. I torn my ACL in a soccer game on a Sunday the on-site trainer told my parent to ice on & off every 40 mins for the first 24 hours. My parents got up every 40 mins. to put ice on my knee. Long night but really helped.

  8. Tina Butte says:

    These are by good points Jon. I would stress Patience Patience Patience!!! Especially in the first week after injury. In my experience the orthopedist would not recommend x rays or MRI until swelling subsided. As you mentioned RICE is vital and can speed reduction of swelling and discomfort. In that first week, especially if you felt the shift and pop, the muscles and ligaments have been stretched and the knee will be extremely veunerable to additional damage and pain due to side to side movement. Within a couple of weeks a level of stability should return to an extent and a better evaluation of mobility and damage can be gained. Many times as you mentioned, given a little time, one may decide rehabilitation not reconstruction will be a better option. Whether without repair or post reconstruction, strength training after rehab will be never ending.
    In terms of compression after injury, I used clay ice pack wraps held tightly in place between cut off sleeves from a long sleeve T shirt. It was not too tight but the key was keeping some pressure on it at all times. If I unwrapped my knee or took off compression for more than a couple of minutes the pain was much worse. If I think of more I will add.

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