ACL surgery is minimally invasive and can reduce pain, improve joint mechanics and stability, and prevent further injury. Recovering from ACL surgery may take up to a year.

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An anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear is a common injury to the knee area. While this injury can happen to anyone, athletes — such as soccer, football, basketball, and volleyball players — most often experience it.

Your ACL is located in the center of your knee. It helps control the way your shin and thigh bones work together. An ACL injury often occurs when you’re in motion and stop abruptly or abnormally, such as when you land a jump incorrectly or when you’re running and come to a sudden stop.

For some people with ACL tears, surgery is the recommended treatment option. Surgery can restore the knee, stop it from giving out, and protect it from further injury.

Not everyone needs surgery for an ACL tear. Typically, a healthcare professional will suggest surgery if:

  • your knee buckles while walking or completing other daily tasks
  • your job requires knee strength or agility
  • you’re an athlete
  • you’re physically active
  • your other knee ligaments were also injured

There are nonsurgical treatments for ACL tears.

Repairing an ACL tear includes modifying your activities in order to take pressure off your knee, undergoing physical therapy to strengthen muscles around your knee and in the back of your thigh, and using a brace to stabilize your knee.

These treatments don’t repair the ACL itself, but they can help you manage the injury.

For many people, these treatments can relieve pain, prevent instability, and allow you to do low impact activities, such as swimming.

For sports where you need to pivot, spin, or cut when running, your knee will not be stable enough following an ACL injury.

ACL surgery is a minimally invasive outpatient procedure in which your surgeon will make small incisions in your knee. Your knee will be numbed with a local anesthetic so that you’re not in pain during surgery.

Your surgeon will likely reconstruct your ACL using tissue from your own patellar or hamstring tendon. In some cases, they may use donor tissue from a cadaver, but this is much less common.

Your surgeon will use the tissue to replace the damaged tendon of your ACL. They will carefully insert the tissue through the small incisions in your knee and then secure it in place with surgical screws, staples, or sutures.

Note that your procedure can vary depending on your surgeon’s methods and the extent of your injury.

For many people, ACL surgery is successful and allows them to return to their previous level of activity. However, as is true of all surgical procedures, there are risks involved.

Risks of ACL surgery include:

After ACL surgery, you’ll be given crutches to use for about a week after surgery.

You’ll also start physical therapy around this time. The physical therapy sessions will help you manage pain, regain control over knee motion, and begin building muscles.

Your physical therapist will advise you on when it’s safe to walk without the assistance of crutches.

Pain after surgery is common. Your doctor will advise you on the best pain medication to take after surgery. Over-the-counter medication may be sufficient, but your doctor can also prescribe stronger pain medications if needed.

You’ll likely take this medication temporarily — in the first few weeks or months after surgery — to help manage pain and swelling. Physical therapy can also help reduce pain and inflammation and help you heal.

Your recovery timeline will depend on individual factors, including the severity of the injury, the type of surgery you had, and how you progress in physical therapy.

It can take between 8 months and 1 year for athletes to safely return to their previous level of activity.

For non-athletes or people not competing at a high level of performance, it can take 4–8 months to fully recover.

Your recovery will be closely monitored by your physical therapist and medical team along the way. It’s important not to go too fast or do activities that haven’t been cleared by your team, as too much stress on your knee can put you at risk of re-injury.

It’s important to make sure your knee returns to full strength before resuming your previous activities. A weak knee is very susceptible to a repeat injury.

An ACL tear is a common injury in athletes that can result in pain and knee instability.

Sometimes, surgery is the best treatment option. ACL surgery is a minimally invasive treatment in which a surgeon will make small incisions in your knee and replace the damaged tissue.

Damaged ACL tissue is often replaced by ligament tissue from one of your ligaments. ACL recovery is closely monitored by a physical therapist. Exact recovery timelines vary, but it can take up to 1 year for athletes.