How to Spot and Treat an ACL Tear
An ACL tear means putting a stop to sports and could even require reconstructive surgery. Leaving an ACL tear untreated could cause it to get worse and compromise the knee joint.
To athletes training for a race, marathon, or game an ACL ligament tear can delay training and even put you out of action long-term. Early treatment is vital to help your body recover and let you get back to sports.
Here’s how to diagnose and treat an ACL tear to protect and take care of your knee joints.
Read our other guides on preventing and treating common musculoskeletal sports injuries:
- How to Treat Ankle Sprains
- How to Treat Groin Strains
- How to Treat a Pulled Hamstring
- Preventing and Treating Shin Splints
What is an ACL tear?
The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is a strong band of ligament tissue that helps to hold your thigh bone and shin bone together. The ACL is a very important component of the leg structure as it helps to stabilise the knee joint.
Even a partial ACL tear can be dangerous. When the ACL is compromised it can lead to chronic ACL deficiency. The knee can start to slide abnormally, damaging cartilage and causing weakness in the joint. An ACL tear can even lead to osteoarthritis.
ACL tears occur as a result of many different sports including rugby, football, tennis, squash, and skiing. Actions like sudden unusual movements, landing jumps incorrectly, and getting tackled can all lead to an ACL tear.
How to Diagnose ACL Tear
You should visit your GP if you suspect you have a torn ACL. They will be able to confirm this with a diagnosis and recommend the best steps forward. Your doctor will perform some tests to determine whether you have an ACL tear, including:
- A physical exam where your doctor will check how your knee joint moves in comparison to your other, uninjured knee. They may also perform a Lachman test or anterior drawer test to check the range of motion and how well the joint works, and ask you questions about how it feels.
- X-ray exam where your doctor can rule out a fracture or broken bone.
- MRI scan that will show your tendons and soft tissues and allow your doctor to check the extent of the damage.
- Ultrasound scan to assess the ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
If your injury is mild you might not have torn the ACL and only stretched it. ACL injuries are graded to determine their severity as follows.
|Grade 1 ACL injury||Mild damage, mild pain or discomfort. The ligament is overstretched by not torn. The stability of the knee is hardly affected.|
|Grade 2 ACL injury||Moderate damage, moderate pain. The ligament is overstretched and partially torn.|
|Grade 3 ACL tear||Severe damage, severe pain. The ligament is completed torn. Most grade 3 ACL tears require surgery.|
ACL Tear Symptoms
There might be indicators that you have torn the ACL in your knee. It’s useful to check for the following signs to determine whether your injury is an ACL tear and not something else like a pulled hamstring.
Although it’s important to get a diagnosis from your doctor to get treated early if you do have one. If left untreated, an ACL tear can seriously affect your movement.
So, where do you feel an ACL tear and what does an ACL tear look like?
- You might hear or feel a ‘popping’ sensation in your knee.
- You might experience a weak feeling in your knee and it might ‘give way’ when you put weight on it. You might also have a general loss of motion.
- Following an ACL tear, swelling will occur rapidly around the knee.
- You will likely experience pain ranging from mild to severe. The pain will be localised in the centre of your knee.
ACL Tear Treatment
Following an examination by your doctor, you will be advised on the best treatment for an ACL tear. Your age, overall health, lifestyle, and the severity of your injury will impact the ACL tear management you require.
Early ACL tear therapy is important as it can help to ease pain and swelling, and take the pressure off the injured area in the moments after the injury occurs. Use the RICE method to help an ACL tear in the first few days following the injury.
- R: rest. Immediately cease physical activity and keep off the injured knee as much as you can.
- I: ice. Apply an ice pack to the area for 20 minutes every two to three hours for the first few days.
- C: compression. Wrap the knee in zinc oxide tape or wear a knee brace to help reduce inflammation.
- E: elevate. To ease swelling, elevate the knee above the level of your heart by laying down and using cushions.
Icing the Knee
Use a bag of ice or peas wrapped in a towel to ice the knee and do not apply ice directly to the skin. If you’re out and about when the injury strikes you won’t have access to some ice. This is a particular problem for athletes and sportspeople who train outdoors.
That’s why we suggest carrying an instant ice pack as part of your first aid kit when training. The Sterofreeze Ice Pack only needs to be squeezed and shaken to activate its cooling effect. When injury strikes you have an instant ice pack to hand.
Instant ice packs aren’t just used for soothing ACL injuries, they can also be used for how to treat ACL tear groin strains, ankle sprains, and other soft tissue injuries.
Compressing the Injured Knee
Tape a knee using zinc oxide tape which is robust, non-stretchy, and capable of fully immobilising your knee joint.
Wrapping an injured knee so that the joint is immobilised leads many people to wonder ‘can you walk with an ACL tear?’ Wearing wrap or a brace on your knee certainly will help to support it if you need to move around, but take care not to put too much weight on it in the first few days unless completely necessary.
But sometimes using the RICE method and resting your injured knee isn’t enough to help the ligament heal. So, how do you treat an ACL tear that won’t heal on its own? Usually, this is when the injury required surgery.
ACL injuries often come with damage to other ligaments, tendons, and muscles in the same area, and so you may need to consult a physiotherapist or doctor for an intensive course of physical therapy to help you strengthen the joint again.
Surgery is sometimes required to treat an ACL tear. You may receive arthroscopic surgery which is a less invasive form of surgery. Surgery should be followed up with an intensive course of physical therapy.
Be Prepared for Sports Injuries with Sterosport
We want everyone to feel confident playing sports and that means knowing what to do when someone gets injured. We believe that the best ways to prepare for any eventuality are with the right equipment and the right training.
Our website is full of great resources to help you find the right sports first aid courses, put together a sports first aid kit, and continually develop your knowledge of sports rehabilitation. To make life easier for players, athletes, and coaches, we offer a professionally put together sports first aid kit including all of the essentials needed in line with national governing body requirements.
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