A Torn ACL and a Long Recovery

I take serious interest in every science story I report on, but I must admit I had a special interest in this story due to personal experience. I tore my ACL a couple years ago. Ironically, I didn’t injure my ACL playing football or basketball or skiing; I tore it while hiking. I was stepping down onto a lower trail and my leg gave out. The doctor told me that many ACL injuries he treats stem from fairly routine activities like what I was doing. This didn’t make me feel any better. 

The thing to remember is that once surgery is performed, rehabilitation can be a lengthy process. Returning to normal activities can take months and specific rehabilitation programs depend on the individual. To give an idea of what that road to recovery may look like, here's a general timeline of my experience.

First Days
The goal in the first days after ACL reconstruction is simply to stay comfortable and keep the swelling down. Icing the knee, keeping it elevated and using crutches to get around help achieve this. 

Weeks 1-2
The therapist begins range of motion exercises. The goal is to regain full extension (the ability to fully straighten) of the knee. In general, flexion (ability to bend) is much easier to regain than extension. The knee/leg needs to regain its strength, so gentle strengthening and aerobic work is implemented. My therapist had me ride a stationary bicycle in every therapy session to help with strength, motion and aerobic activity.

Weeks 3-6
Physical therapy continues to increase motion and strength. Once my injured leg was strong enough, I also began to work on balance, trying to stand on one leg. Even after a couple weeks, this is not as easy as it sounds! Climbing a few stairs was a real challenge.

Weeks 7-12
By this stage, the range of motion is checked every week for improvement. The therapist began to check how strong my leg was becoming. More movements were added to help with balance.

Week 13-16
My leg finally felt almost normal by this point. The challenge was not to think about the injury and “favor” the leg too much. I needed to test it and stress it, just not overdue it. I was finally cleared to begin running again five months after the injury, although my therapist suggested I wear a brace just to be safe. Looking back, I think that was as much for my mental peace of mind as well as physical need. 

When I started therapy, I remember the therapist telling me that while I would be able to return to fairly normal activity in 5-6 months, but it would take almost one year until I wouldn't constantly think about the knee anytime I did something. She was right. Almost one year later, I remember finishing a workout and realizing I hadn’t thought about my knee once during my jog.

—Frank Graff

Frank Graff is a producer/reporter with UNC-TV, focusing on North Carolina Science Now, a weekly science series that airs Wednesdays, beginning in August 2013, as part of North Carolina Now on UNC-TV. In addition to producing these special segments, Frank will provide additional information related to his stories through this North Carolina Science Now Reporter's Blog!

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