So you’ve been an athlete for years or maybe you just took up running to shed a few extra pounds. Either way, you’re super excited about your recent miles covered when all of a sudden …
POP! Goes the ACL…
Holy freaking ouch. You fall to the ground, you grab your knee and squeeze it tightly to your chest, as if hugging the lower extremity will magically take the pain away. Through gritted teeth you breathe rapidly as the color drains from your lips. You howl something that resembles a wounded animal until minutes later the throbbing subsides enough to allow rational thought to seep back in. Assuming a sitting position, you assess the knee. Perhaps a bit swollen, but no bruising. No blood. Whew, doesn’t look too bad.
Aaaaand then you do the inevitable and try to stand up. Things are ok until you shift weight to the injured leg and then BOOM! You gasp as you witness your calf turn in as your quad turns out. Your leg completely denies any trace of stability and unless you had someone supporting you, you find yourself with your buns right back in the grass. Yowzas.
This dude and I have some serious history. He started raising hell in 1998 and has caused me years of swelling, pain and industrial sized ice packs ever since. Chances are you’re not here for an hour long science lesson so allow me to break it down as simply as my over-zealous, scientifically minded, research loving brain will allow for me to do.
You have 4 ligaments that provide your knee with stability.
- ACL – Anterior Cruciate Ligament
- PCL – Posterior Cruciate Ligament
- LCL – Lateral Cruciate Ligament
- MCL – Medial Collateral Ligament
You also have some pretty nice cushiony stuff that science refers to as cartiledge . When all of these parts are healthy, they work together really nicely to provide you, the athlete (or non-athlete) with the stability and flexibilty to do all of the active things you enjoy: walk, run, ski, skip, walk to the kitchen to refill your bowl of popcorn, you get my drift. When one of these parts fails you, however, it can throw the whole joint out of whack. Of the 4 ligaments, the most commonly injured is the, you guessed it, ACL. People such as soccer players, football stars, professional dancers, etc may be the most likely to suffer this injury, but truth be told it can happen to anyone at any time.
So here you are. Whether you’re a model for a fitness magazine or considering your first “Couch to 5k” program, you have a torn ACL and it is severely hampering your lifestyle. You’ve probably hopped on Google and maybe if you’re nerdy enough you went to your local library and photocopied every diagram of a knee you could find and made a portfolio of your own version of “The Anatomy of The Knee”. That may or may not have been me I was referring to. You’ve read about the different surgical options and are hearing the sounds of a drill going through your tibia in your dreams. Oh, you haven’t read about them?
Allow me to enlighten you.
If you choose to have an ACL Reconstruction, your doctor will have to shave away the old remnants of the torn ligament and replace it with a new one. He’ll make a hole in your tibia and loop the new ligament through the passage and staple it to the femur. Excellent you say, but where will this new little guy come from? Wal-Mart? Um, not quite. While you can’t stroll down the aisles and personally pick out your new ligament at Costco, you do have a say of where to get it. You can:
a) Harvest part of your Patella tendon from the front of your knee
b) Harvest part of your Hamstrings
c) Inherit a used ligament from a cadaver (heck, he’s not using it anymore, might as well).
Or, you could bypass the knife all together. I mean, if an all-star NBA player like DeJuan Blair can play at the professional level without an ACL in either knee, certainly you can make it through a few miles and burpees without one too. Right?
Well, I did both. After 4 knee surgeries to reattach ligaments (all unsuccessful) and repair cartilage, I decided that I was done with surgery and took physical therapy into my own hands. For almost 10 years I have been sans ACL in my left knee. I run. I jump. I play. The key to not getting further injured is keeping the leg strong and sturdy. Leg extensions, hamstring curls, and leg press are a MUST – 2, if not 3 days a week. Leg raises are a part of my daily life, like brushing my teeth or taking a shower. Keeping the muscles strong gives them the ability to absorb the shock of impact and hold the leg together when the ACL isn’t there to do so.
After taking almost 2 weeks off of running/working out (due to illness), I’m reminded of how crucial my strength training regimen is. Already I can see and feel the muscle on my legs (especially the injured one) waning. My steps aren’t as sure footed and if I were to run on an uneven surface right now, I would be begging for injury. Strength is good for the average athlete, but it is absolutely imperative for the injured one.
As with anything in life, you have to do your research and make the decision that’s best for you. There are doctors out there who can work magic. There are ones that will make your injury worse. In the case of the non-life threatening ACL, it’s luckily a decision that doesn’t have to be rushed. You can take all the time you need to choose whether or not to have surgery and rehab your knee in the meantime. Whatever path you choose, know that you must make a life long commitment to keeping your leg strong. Be good to your body and it will be good to you. 🙂