ACL Repair: You Can Get Hurt Just Like An NFL Player

When your knee pops, slides, skips, and rotates, you just may have ruptured your ACL. This is a common sporting injury that occurs in weekend sports enthusiasts and professional athletes alike. This kind of ACL injury is painful and takes a lot of rehabilitation, but the surgery to repair it is becoming routine.

The tennis ball sails over the net. You run towards it, slap it back across the net, but you can feel your knee give way. You crumble on the court, your tennis racket clattering beside you. You grab your knee, but already you can feel it starting to swell. It feels like it’s come unhinged. Congratulations! You’ve just torn your ACL. You, along with a large number of pro athletes, have just experienced one of the most common orthopedic injuries. It is estimated that 200,000 of these injuries occur annually with 100,000 surgeries performed. Pick up the sports page and you can find the names of many high school, collegiate, and professional athletes who all ended their seasons with this all too common injury. The knee is a complex joint, and there are many options that exist for the surgery to repair it. Work with your surgeon to determine the best medical course for you.

Anatomy of a Knee: What the Heck is An ACL, Anyway?

The knee has more ligaments than a suspension bridge has cables. When one is torn the knee loses its stability, and you have pain when walking. The acronym ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament.  The knee is essentially the meeting of the two bones of the leg: the femur or the thighbone, and the tibia or the shinbone. Your ACL prevents the shinbone from sliding out from underneath your thighbone and also keeps your knee from rotating abnormally. That’s why when it is torn your knee loses its stability. Unfortunately, due to the traumatic nature of ACL injuries, injuries to other ligaments in the knee, injuries to the meniscus or padding of the knee, and injuries to the protective cartilage are also quite common when the ACL injury occurs.

Types of Grafts: Where Does One Get A Spare ACL?

When you completely tear your ACL, a new one needs to be inserted in its place. Your surgeon can get the new ACL from a few different sources. Each source has its pros and cons. One possible source is to take a sample from your patellar, or kneecap, tendon. The advantage of this is that it’s your own tissue, but it can cause pain behind the kneecap postoperatively and can cause pain when kneeling. However, this is the gold standard with the rate of failure at only 1.9 percent. Another possibility is to take the tendon from the hamstring. Again, this is your own tissue, it offers a fast rate of healing, it has less risk of knee pain, but the rate of failure is 4.9 percent. A third option is called an allograft which is a ligament taken from a cadaver, or a deceased person. Although these grafts offer a high rate of success and are increasingly used in surgery, they do pose a risk for infection despite rigorous screening tests. Some studies have pointed to failure rates as high as 23 percent for these grafts, and researchers are unsure why this is so.

Complications of ACL Repair

As with any surgery, there are complications of having your ACL repaired.  Infection is the number one complication of the surgery, especially if you choose to have an allograft. The rate of infection is 0.2 to 0.48 percent with this surgery, but it is higher with allograft donors. Blood clots are the second most common side effect of having the surgery done, but the rate of this is only 0.12 percent. Outside of surgery, problems with the knee itself are likely. Instability in the knee can range anywhere from between 2.5 to 34 percent of all ACL repairs, and knee stiffness is reported in 5 to 25 percent of all surgical patients. Failure of the tendons that have been harvested, such as the patellar tendon or the hamstring tendon, can also occur due to weakening after the graft has been taken out. Kneecap pain is also common with patellar tendon harvesting, and it occurs in 4 to 56 percent of those who have this graft procedure.



American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons; ACL Injury: Does It Require Surgery