No matter where you are or what you're doing, if you hear someone mention "ACL," you cringe. Thoughts of excruciating pain—followed by months and months of inactivity and rehab—fill your head. But based on new research, once the strength and motion in your knee return to normal, you're OK to go back and play.
That's the conclusion of a study conducted by doctors at the Shelbourne Knee Center, an Indianapolis-based clinic that specializes in ACL reconstruction. The question doctors set out to answer was whether there should be a time restriction on when an athlete can return to sports following ACL reconstructive surgery.
"You can go back and play whenever your knee will let you go back and play," says Dr. Scott Urch, a knee specialist at the Shelbourne Center and a co-investigator for the research.
Urch says the research was an "outcome follow-up" of more than 400 high school student-athletes who tore their ACLs while playing basketball or soccer. The patients went through a directed rehabilitation program before and after their reconstructive surgery, working toward the goal of gaining full range of motion and full symmetric strength in both legs.
"It's a matter of getting both legs back to their preoperative state…[and] not limiting how they get there," Urch says.
According to the study, 40 percent of the patients were able to return in less than four months. A full 75 percent returned in fewer than six months, which is widely accepted as the earliest period at which an athlete can return.
"Not everybody can achieve that and be comfortable playing at four months, or start practice at two or three months and work their way back in," Urch says. "But if your knee allows you to do that, you should be able to."
Be advised, though. Your ability to return to competition doesn't necessarily mean you've fully recovered.
"This study shows that athletes who go back and play in four months are at no greater risk of injuring themselves than the athletes who go back in eight months," Urch says. "It's probably going to take you a couple of months of playing before you feel like the player you were before the injury."
For more information on the Shelbourne Knee Center, visit aclmd.com.
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