Can an ACL Tear Heal by Itself?

The most common knee injuries include sprains or tears in the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL).1 Many patients who experience an ACL injury need surgery to get back their full knee function. However, some people with ACL tears may have an adequate recovery without an operation. Discover how ACL injuries heal and your treatment options for an ACL tear below.

About ACL Injuries

Your ACL runs diagonally in the middle of the knee joint to add stability. It works together with the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) to control your knee’s back and forth motions. Athletes have a higher risk of ACL tears than the general population because of the activities involved in sports.2 Actions such as pivoting, planting and cutting can make the ACL more vulnerable to injury because of the increased knee motion. ACL injuries often happen alongside damage to other parts of the knee, including cartilage and ligaments.

Someone who experiences an ACL injury may hear a “popping” noise as it occurs and feel their knee give out. A tear or sprain in the ACL can cause symptoms such as:

  • Pain and swelling within 24 hours
  • Limited range of motion
  • Tenderness along the joint
  • Discomfort while walking

In most ACL injury cases, the patient experiences a complete or near-complete tear, requiring reconstruction in some situations.

How Does an ACL Tear Heal?

An ACL injury’s healing process depends on the degree of the tear and severity of knee instability.3 Many cases of partial tearing have favorable outcomes, while complete tears need more attention. The patient’s age and activity level also influence the course of action that a doctor will recommend. For example, a younger athlete may need surgery to get back to their normal activity level. Meanwhile, an older patient with a sedentary lifestyle might be able to manage with a non-surgical approach. Your doctor may recommend non-surgical treatment if you:

  • Have a partial tear with no instability in your knee
  • Can opt for low-demand sports instead of high-demand sports
  • Live a sedentary lifestyle or do light manual work
  • Have an open growth plate due to young age

Research suggests that some skiers with ACL tears can heal on their own, depending on the nature of their injury.4 Your orthopedic specialist can help you determine whether you need ACL surgery to continue your daily activities.

Surgical and Non-Surgical Treatment Options for ACL Injuries

After getting an examination and discussing your needs, your doctor may recommend one of two types of ACL injury treatments:

  • Surgical: ACL surgery involves the full reconstruction of the ligament. The surgeon uses a graft from the patient or a donor to create a new ACL that serves the same purpose as the injured one. During recovery, the patient completes physical therapy to strengthen the new ligament.
  • Non-surgical: If the doctor and patient decide not to pursue surgery, rehabilitation and physical therapy can build the patient’s knee stability.

Your doctor can assist you in finding a treatment solution that fits your injury and lifestyle.

Learn More About Treating Your ACL Injury With Regional Orthopedics

Patients in New York can get ACL tear diagnosis and treatment at one of Regional Orthopedics’ offices. To schedule an appointment, contact our staff online.

Reference List:

1. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries – OrthoInfo – AAOS. OrthoInfo.–conditions/anterior-cruciate-ligament-acl-injuries/. Published March 2014. Accessed July 17, 2019.

2. Torn ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament): ACL Tear Surgery. Hospital for Special Surgery. Accessed July 17, 2019.

3. ACL Injury: Does It Require Surgery? – OrthoInfo – AAOS. OrthoInfo. Published September 2009. Accessed July 17, 2019.

4. Hetsroni I, Delos D, Fives G, Boyle BW, Lillemoe K, Marx RG. Nonoperative treatment for anterior cruciate ligament injury in recreational alpine skiers. Knee Surgery, Sports Traumatology, Arthroscopy. 2012;21(8):1910-1914. doi:10.1007/s00167-012-2324-8

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