You’ve probably heard of professional athletes sidelined by an anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, tear. This injury, caused by pivoting suddenly and twisting the knee in the process, can make your knee feel shaky or unstable. It also causes swelling and intense pain, and you might hear a popping sound at the time of injury. If you experience these symptoms and suspect that you have torn your ACL, see a doctor immediately, because this can be a potentially serious injury that can cause long-term complications, such as early-onset knee arthritis, and often requires surgery.
The anterior cruciate ligament connects your thigh bone, or femur, to your lower leg bone, which is known as the tibia. Athletes at risk of damaging this ligament are those who play sports which require suddenly changing direction while running, such football, basketball, gymnastics and soccer. Also, for reasons that remain unknown, women are more likely to tear their ACL than men.
If you think you have torn your ACL, your doctor will ask you questions to establish whether your injury is, indeed, an ACL tear, and he or she may take an X-ray to establish the root of your knee pain. Until you see your doctor, stop training; in fact, it is best to completely immobilize the knee using a splint to prevent making the injury worse. If your foot or lower leg becomes blue and cool to the touch after your injury, you should head to the emergency room immediately, as this may be a sign you dislocated your knee, cutting off circulation to the rest of your leg.
If your ACL tear is mild, you may need to use crutches and perform physical therapy to help the ligament heal. In more serious cases, however, surgery is necessary to repair the torn tissue.
Learning proper sports techniques and staying in good physical condition can help prevent an ACL tear, as can mastering ways to minimize stress on the ligament while being active. Performing exercises to strengthen your hamstrings and quadriceps also can help prevent an ACL tear by making your leg more stable.