Recovering From ACL Surgery

10 Tips to Speed Your Post-Operative Recovery

physical therapist stretching patient's knee
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Recovery from ACL surgery takes time, but there are some actions you can take to make the process go as quickly as possible.

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries of the knee are commonly treated with outpatient arthroscopic surgery. In most cases, ACL surgery is scheduled far enough in advance to allow plenty of time to create both a pre-surgery and post-surgery treatment plan.

The results of the surgery can vary dramatically. Some injuries are simply worse than others, while certain surgical procedures may also be more invasive. In other cases, the way in which you approach recovery can make a big difference in how fast you're back on your feet.

A study in the Journal of Sports Medicine suggested that, while 81 percent of people are able to return to sports after ACL surgery, only 55 percent can achieve the same performance level, due in large part to inadequate rehabilitation efforts.

10 Ways to Speed Recovery

Some basic recommendations for recovering quickly from ACL surgery include the following. Patients who follow them tend to have a better surgical outcome and a faster recovery than patients who don't.

  1. Follow your post-op instructions. Immediately after ACL surgery, you will receive specific instructions from your surgeon, including the schedule of post-operative medical visits. You will also be referred to a physical therapist to establish an ACL rehabilitation program. It is important to adhere to these recommendations and to ask questions if you don't understand what is being asked of you.
  2. Go to your follow-up appointments. It's important that your progress is monitored and your plan tweaked when needed. There is a direct correlation between the number of post-operative doctor visits and the speed by which you recover from surgery, according to a study published in the journal PLoS One.
  3. Get a referral to a physical therapist. Physical therapy is generally prescribed after ACL surgery as a matter of course. If you don't receive a referral to PT, ask your surgeon for one.
  4. Perform ACL rehab exercises. Your physical therapist will determine the appropriate exercise program based your age, surgery, current health, and current fitness level. These exercises should be performed by routine and continued well after mobility has been restored.
  5. Ensure proper nutrition. Eating well after surgery can help your body heal faster. Recommended foods include lean protein (red meat, chicken or fish), dairy, and fresh citrus. Vegetables are nutrient-rich, so eat plenty of green leafy plants including spinach. Many nutritionists recommend stopping or at least limiting caffeine, alcohol, and sodas.
  6. Get ample sleep. While you sleep, your body repairs tissues and promotes healing, so be sure to get at least eight hours of quality sleep each night. Learn sleep hygiene techniques rather than reaching for sleeping pills.
  7. Take your medications as prescribed. You most likely will be on some pain medication after your surgery. Talk to your doctor about how and when to take new medications, and if you should add multivitamins or other supplements to your daily rehab plan. If you stopped medications before your surgery, ask how and when to start them again.
  8. Inform your surgeon about any problems you experience. If pain suddenly increases, you develop a fever, or there are symptoms you feel are abnormal, it's important to let your doctor know right away.
  9. Use relaxation techniques: Use relaxation exercises to maintain a confident and relaxed state of mind and reduce any anxiety you may have about recovering from your surgery.
  10. Ask for help: After surgery, you will be less mobile and will probably need additional help with daily activities. Don't be afraid to ask for help from your friends and family.

Recovery from an ACL surgery can take anywhere from two to six months. However, it can nine months or more before you return to your pre-injury condition with a full range of motion and stability in the knee joint.

A longer rehabilitation period doesn't mean that you're doing anything wrong. It can vary from one person to another. Simply keep with the program, have patience, and find support and encouragement to aid in your recovery.

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  1. Nyland J, Mattocks A, Kibbe S, Kalloub A, Greene JW, Caborn DN. Anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction, rehabilitation, and return to play: 2015 update. Open Access J Sports Med. 2016;7:21-32. doi:10.2147/OAJSM.S72332

  2. Mavros MN, Athanasiou S, Gkegkes ID, Polyzos KA, Peppas G, Falagas ME. Do psychological variables affect early surgical recovery? PLoS ONE. 2011;6(5):e20306. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0020306

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