No one wants to hear the characteristic “popping” sound and accompanying pain when their anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) suddenly tears. Yet ACL tears are the most common knee ligament injury, with the United States reporting 100,00 to 200,00 ACL injuries each year.
ACL tears require a significant recovery time, which makes them an injury that all athletes hope to avoid. The injury typically will end an athlete’s season and require at least a year of hard work to rehabilitate. Some athletes can continue to compete with a torn ACL if the surrounding musculature can support the knee without episodes of giving out, but most will eventually get surgery. Fortunately, you can follow preventive tips and exercises to decrease your risk of an ACL tear.
Knee Anatomy and Function of the ACL
The knee joint is where your femur (thigh bone), tibia (shin bone), and patella (kneecap) meet. The knee has four ligaments that provide static stability, connecting bone to bone. The muscles surrounding the knee provide dynamic stability to the knee.
The ACL and PCL (crucial posterior ligament) are the two cruciate ligaments inside your knee joint that work together to stabilize your knee and control the femur (thigh bone) sliding on the tibia (shin bone).
What Are the Causes and Symptoms of ACL Tear Injuries?
Anyone can have an accident and tear their ACL, but some factors increase your risk. For example, being female or participating in sports requiring cutting movements, pivoting, or landing on one leg increase your chances of tearing your ACL. Your risk also increases if you’re playing a sport on artificial turf.
Common causes of ACL tears include:
- Stopping suddenly, side-step-cutting, changing direction, or pivoting rapidly while the foot is planted on the ground
- Landing incorrectly from a jump
- Suddenly slowing down while running with poor mechanics
- A direct blow to the knee or colliding with another athlete
- Hyperextension of the knee
- Repeated stress to the knee
How do you know if you may have torn your ACL? Signs and symptoms of an ACL injury include:
- Hearing a loud “pop”
- Feeling a “popping” sensation in the knee
- Sudden severe pain
- Inability to bear weight on the knee (feels like it’s “giving out”)
- Rapid knee and leg swelling
- Loss of range of motion in the knee
- Knee feels warm to the touch
- Numbness below the knee
Tips To Prevent ACL Tears
Although you can’t completely eliminate the possibility of an ACL tear, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk of it occurring.
- Always stretch and warm-up adequately before exercising or participating in sports.
Your warm-up should include stretching, dynamic strengthening movements (lunges, squats, etc.), and plyometrics (jumping activities). There are numerous ACL prevention warm-up programs available online. Examples include the Santa Monica ACL prevention program (PEP) and FIFA 11.
- Practice proprioceptive training.
Proprioception allows you to perceive the position and movement of your body, know where your body is in space, and have a sense of balance and equilibrium — therefore reducing your risk of an ACL tear.
Proprioceptive training improves muscle strength, balance, and reaction times using approaches like movement exercises and sequential training. Practicing on unstable surfaces (i.e., Airpax pad or wobble board) can be helpful in this training.
- Participate in lower-body strength training.
You are more prone to an ACL injury if the muscles around your knee are weak. Strengthening your leg muscles, especially your thigh hamstrings, quadriceps, and gluteus maximus muscles, improves your balance and range of motion and prevents injury.
- Increase conditioning before your sports season starts.
Fatigue increases your risk of an ACL tear, but strength reduces your injury risk. So properly ramp up your conditioning prior to your season, so you’re at peak fitness and limit fatigue as a factor for injury.
Keep your entire body conditioned year-round, and include strengthening your hips and lower core.
- Practice your landing skills.
Many ACL tears occur from an improper landing, but you can prevent ACL tears by landing your jumps properly. Be sure your knees are bent and not straight when you land, and keep your knees from turning inward.
- Practice agility and deceleration.
Agility and deceleration training teaches you to perform common sports movements such as cutting, pivoting, changing direction, and stopping, which are other high-risk skills that cause ACL tears when executed improperly.
Exercises To Prevent ACL Tears
Keeping the muscles around your knee strong and flexible can reduce your risk of ACL tears.
The hamstring muscles and ACL work together to prevent your tibia from moving forward suddenly, so if your hamstrings are strong, you may be able to prevent an ACL tear. And strengthening your hip/core control and gluteus medius muscle prevents your knee from collapsing inward and causing an ACL tear.
A physical therapist can provide you with a detailed assessment of any range of motion limitations, strengths, weaknesses or asymmetries, and analyze your movement patterns. They then will provide you with a plan to address the limitations they discovered so that your body can move and absorb forces more efficiently.
Your physical therapist may work with you using the following exercises that target your hamstrings, quadriceps, and glutes to lower your risk of ACL injury:
- Plyometric exercises
- Hip abduction
- Loaded squats
- Wall Sits
- Reverse Lunges
- Bridges (short leg and long leg)
- Planks and Side Planks
Consult With a Rock Valley Physical Therapist to Prevent an ACL Tear
Don’t allow yourself to be sidelined by an ACL injury but learn more about how you can keep yourself healthy and safe in your sport or daily activities.
At Rock Valley PT, our physical therapists can evaluate you and your unique needs to create an individualized preventive plan. If you have already suffered an ACL injury, we can assist you with developing a rehabilitation treatment plan so you can get back to life without pain.
Request your appointment at Rock Valley today.