When an ACL Surgery & Rehab Goes Bad

Anterior cruciate ligament tears have become too common.  Most non-professional athletes just assumes that an ACL surgery is a simple procedure with little chance that anything could go wrong.

ACL reconstructions (ACLR) are often thought about in a similar manner as the Space Shuttle program was five years ago.  This huge 240,000 lbs space ship would be launched into space at over 17,000 mph and it might only get a quick 30 second side-comment on the local news.

It’s not that simple and when there is a problem, with an ACLR or with the space shuttle, the results are not good.

Here’s a look at a present ACL reconstruction situation with a friend of mine that will show you what happens when all doesn’t go according to the plan.  She’s struggling to get her knee and her athletic career back on track.

The Background

“Katie” is an athletic 42 years old rockin’ soccer player at the time of her ACL tear in June 2011.  She gave me permission to share her story with MikeRyanFitness readers.

Katie had ACL surgery reconstruction (ACLR) in mid-July 2011 with an allograft.  I was surprised to see that she used a tibialis anterior tendon from a cadaver.  When this form of harvesting tissue from the surgical patient themselves, it is referred to as an autograft.

Initial Rehab

Braced in week #1 along with ice, very little weight-bearing and no physical therapy.

Katie’s rehab started during week #2 with 50% weight-bearing, strengthening exercise only in open chain (foot off the ground) and range of motion (ROM) drills.

The brace was removed during week #4, full weight-bearing was started, only open chain exercises continued, ice and starting Russian Stimulation using an electric stimulator to aid in muscle strength.

Time for Concern

During the start of week #5, the surgeon expressed concern with the limited ROM.

His Plan:  He drained fluid out of the knee, gave her a cortisone injection and instructed physical therapist to implement closed chain activities, which is a great way to rehab ACLR patients by exercising them with their feet on the ground.

The Result

Katie has endured dozens of hours of painful rehab with minimal improvement and few examples of improvement.

“My frustration is mostly due to the inconsistency in treatment and shifting focus constantly with my rehab plan…”

This 10 to 14 week phase of rehab should be the exciting part of her knee marathon but it has turned into a painful and stressful time for Katie.

The knee remains significantly stiff, swollen and limited in range (limited by approximately 10 degrees from full extension).  Katie complains of pain during all activities and while at rest.  Her family and social lives are significantly limited.  It’s understandable that Katie is frustrated with her care and her inability to remain active.

The Plan

Her doctor wants to perform an arthroscopic surgery (“a scope”) in the next two weeks to remove scar tissue, based on the recent MRI.  I assume some form of a manipulation may be performed at the same time to regain needed ROM after the scar tissue is removed and while the Katie remains under anesthesia.

“I have let this knee consume me for months and I finally just took a mental vacation from it the past few weeks.”

After the scope, rehab will continue immediately.  A continuous passive motion (CPM) may be utilized to help the knee to remain in motion while Katie is resting and sleeping.  I think the CPM is a great tool to help maintain ROM and decrease pain.

My Advice to Katie

  • Have a detailed discussion with the surgeon before the ACL surgery.  Ask the important question:

“What do you expect to find in my knee and what are my options in managing these findings?”

“What kind of ACL surgery graft will you use with me and how many of these types of surgeries do you perform every year?”

 “Do I need a micro-fracture surgery?”

  • Your articular cartilage may be damaged and it may be the reason why you’re having so much pain and swelling.
  • Excess scar tissue is not too common but I’ve seen it with pro football players.  They did very well after a scar tissue removal scope.
  • After the scope, start your aggressive rehab ASAP. (note the capital letters!)
  • Use a CPM machine as much as possible.
  • Seek the opinions of other knee doctors and physical therapist in your area.  Remember that it’s your knee that’s in turmoil so stop worrying about their feelings.
  • As for the mental vacation, it’s needed and truly justified.  Get your mind “right” because you still have some heavy work ahead of you, Katie.
  • Keep your quad strong!!  Gains in quad strength may come in smaller chunks after the scope but it may prove to be the #1 variable if you want to be an athlete for the next 30 years.
  • From what you’ve been thru, the next phase will be a bit easier and MUCH more rewarding.

Mike Ryan’s Sports Medicine Tips for an ACLR Rehab Plan

  1. Research your doctor and his/her exact surgical technique before your ACL surgery.
  2. Get a copy of your surgeon’s WRITTEN rehab protocol before your ACL surgery.
  3. Meet your physical therapist and review your rehab protocol with her/him.  Ideally, schedule 1-3 rehab appointments with your therapist before the surgery to increase both knee ROM and quad strength
  4. Plan on a marathon.  Get your body and mind right to put in the necessary work for 6-9 months to successfully put this injury in your rearview mirror.
Let’s all wish Katie the best of luck with her ongoing ordeal.  I keep bragging to her about how smart my followers are so please share your thoughts & suggestions with Katie as she continues to follow this blog during her rehab.

The Inside Scoop on ACL Tears

The evolution of sports has proved to be a fascinating and often amusing combination of creativity, science and hype.  From the lightest of high-tech equipment to the craziest of celebrations, the world of athletics is changing every year.

In the minds of those involved in sports, some aspects remain the same.  One of those constants is the impact of the three most feared letters in sports.  Those letters linger in the minds of the athletes, coaches, team owners and the fans themselves.  They all brace for the injury reports hoping not to hear those three dreadful letters.  They all know the significant downtime needed to recover from these alphabet season assassins.  No one talks about it but we all know that when these three letters “come to town”, this athlete’s season is over.


There they are.  Although not everyone knows what the three letters stand for, we all hope that our anterior cruciate ligaments remain strong and healthy for our entire lifetime.  An ACL or anterior cruciate ligament tear requires 6 to 9 months of intense rehab with no guarantee that the athlete will fully recover.  Those two simple facts justify the reason why we all fear a torn ACL.

ACL Tear Success Story

During the 2009 season Tom Brady, All-Pro quarterback for the New England Patriots, returned from an ACL tear that took place during the 2008 season.  The media and the fans spent most of the off-season pondering the questions:  “Can Tom fully recover from this surgery and will he be the same superstar player that he was before the injury?”

The wait is over and Tom has returned to his winning ways with two outstanding seasons since he was helped from the field in pain with an anterior cruciate ligament tear.  To put an exclamation point to his successful recovery, Tom was recently awarded the 2010-11 NFL Most Valuable Player Award.  It’s a true credit to Tom’s dedication to his profession and the Pat’s Head Athletic Trainer Jim Whalen and his staff’s efforts.

ACL and Its Role in Stabilizing Your Knee

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is the key stabilizing ligament in the knee.  The ACL starts at the distal posterior lateral (back and outside) femur (thigh bone) and crosses the knee joint and attaches to the proximal anterior medial (upper front and inside) tibia (shin bone).  The ACL is one of the two internal knee cruciate ligaments that serve to stabilize the forward/backward shifting of the knee along with a considerable rotational controlling function to the most common injured joint in sports.

The ACL’s most important role is to keep the skin bone properly positioned under the thigh bone by applying a backwards force to the shin bone when the athlete is decelerating and changing directions.  With an ACL tear, this shifting and rotational instability are the most common complaints of someone who has a torn ACL.

Knowing the Truth about an ACL Tear

Now that the formal medical stuff is covered, let’s talk about the reality of the ACL and how it impacts you as an athlete.

Personally, I’ve been involved with the rehabilitation of close to eighty high-level athletes with ACL injuries.  Over 90% of the outcomes of these athletes who required ACL reconstruction surgery has been outstanding.  The average length of time for a full recovery and return to full and unlimited activity has been approximately 8 months.  Depending upon the time of year and the NFL schedule, a quicker recovery is easily possible.  I’ve worked with professional athletes who have returned to full speed in almost half that time. Sometimes that is not always a good thing and I’ll address that in upcoming articles.

With a more aggressive return to full activity, the risks of tendonitis, chronic swelling and articular cartilage complications are often increased as well.

To Brace or Not to Brace

Preventative bracing before you get hurt for high-risk players is a smart decision.  Knee braces may appear bulky but when a brace is fitted properly and the athlete becomes comfortable wearing the brace, few athletes will notice that they are wearing a brace.  Research clearly shows that a properly fitted knee brace will not limited agility movement or negatively affect a football player’s ability to perform.  Especially when the sport includes contact such as football and hockey, preventative knee bracing is the practice of the wise athlete who wants to stay active for a long, long time!

The various types of ACL tear surgeries and the rehabilitation of an ACL tear are topics for future MRF articles.  The objective for this article is to help you shed light on the sports medicine facts related to anterior cruciate ligament tears.

Telling the Athlete the Bad News

No athlete wants to hear a certified athletic trainer or doctor tell him/her “…your ACL is torn and your season is over.” I’ve personally been that person dozens of times who has looked into the eyes of elite professional athletes to give them that very same message.   Their tears say it all.

I was involved in the HBO show called Hard Knocks with the Jaguars in 2004.  During one of the episodes they aired a gripping live scene of me telling an emotional player on the practice field that he had a torn ACL and his season was over.  I love my players and moments like that never get any easier for me.

Questions to Ask About an ACL Tear

A smart professional athlete with a torn ACL who wants to safely return to his/her sport will ask his sports medicine specialist the following questions:

  1. How much of my ACL is torn?
  2. What medical grade, from 1 to 3, would you grade my instability for the following tests for both knees?
    1. Lachman Test
    2. Valgus Stress Test at 30 degrees.
    3. Anterior Drawer Tests
    4. Posterior Drawer Test
  3. If you are recommending an ACL reconstructive (ACLR) surgery, which type of surgery and why?
  4. Who do you recommend to coordinate my treatment?
  5. Do you recommend that I wear a brace for future athletic events?

Tips to Have a Successful Recovery from an ACL Tear

  1. No Special Pill – A torn ACL is what it is.  No one has invented any special ACL vitamins or specific exercise to make the ligament stronger.  Training properly and protective knee braces may prove to be your best medicine.
  2. Coaching Tip – The best prevention principle for ACL tears is to slowly progress with the fundamental basics of your sport to ensure that your lower extremity strength and flexibility are optimal.
  3. Where the Rubber Meets the Road – Proper shoe wear is crucial to avoid too little or too much traction.  Both of which would negatively impact the knee stability.
  4. Surgery? – If you suffer a torn ACL and your future plans include being active at a moderate to high level, reconstructive surgery is highly recommended.
  5. “Pop’s” Are Not Good – According to research, 60% of athletes who hear a “pop” in their knee have an ACL tear.