Although you may go home on the same day as your surgery, recovering from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery is not a quick process. From the time you first undergo surgery through full rehabilitation, the process can take up to six months or more. You will need to take it easy and follow a rehabilitation program to strengthen the muscles around the knee and regain range of motion.
For the best possible ACL recovery, you should always follow your doctor’s instructions. Learn more about what will happen before and after surgery to repair a torn ACL.
How to Prepare for ACL Surgery
A good recovery starts with good preparation. In the weeks and days before your surgery:
- Understand the potential risks and benefits of your surgery. Make a list of questions to ask your surgeon about the procedure and your ACL recovery time.
- Talk with your surgeon. Ask your questions and answer any of the surgeon’s questions about your health history and all medications you are taking.
- Follow instructions. You will be given specific instructions about when to stop eating and drinking in the hours before your surgery. Following these instructions will reduce the risk of vomiting while under general anesthesia.
- Set up transportation. You will need someone to drive you home after your surgery because you will be given anesthesia and pain medications.
- Practice walking with crutches. You will likely need crutches after surgery. Practice using them beforehand.
- Dress comfortably. Wear loose, soft pants or clothing that will go on easily over your bandaged knee to go home.
- Relax. You’ve done your homework and you’re prepared. Now relax in the knowledge that you’re ready to make the most of your ACL recovery time.
What Not to Do After ACL Surgery
You’ll have plenty of instructions to follow during your recovery and rehabilitation process.
But here are some things that you shouldn’t do if you’re looking to make a quick recovery from ACL surgery:
- Don’t put too much pressure on your knee too soon. Even a pain-free knee may not be fully healed—take the time your doctor recommends.
- Don’t over-ice your knee. Surprisingly, excess icing can cause nerve damage. Limit icing to 20 minutes 3 to 4 times per day.
- Don’t sleep with your knee bent. Hours spent sleeping with a bent knee could cause a buildup of scar tissue over time, later preventing you from fully extending your knee.
- Don’t overcompensate with your uninjured knee. It’s natural to want to shift your body weight to your uninjured side, but that can delay your recovery or injure your stronger knee. Try to evenly distribute your weight across both legs when standing.
- Don’t be afraid to call your doctor’s office. Make that call if you experience increased pain, fever, or signs of an infection, or if you have questions about your recovery.
RELATED: What Is ACL Reconstruction Surgery?
ACL Reconstruction Recovery Time
Here are some general guidelines on the recovery process in the weeks and months following ACL repair surgery:
Rest: 0 to 2 weeks after ACL surgery
You may need someone to help you when you first go home from ACL surgery and expect to be out of work a few days to a few weeks, depending on how physically demanding your job is.
For the first couple of weeks after surgery, you will need to rest and care for the incision site.
- Prop your leg — at the calf or ankle — on a couple of pillows four to six times a day. This helps reduce swelling.
- Keep the bandages on your knee clean and dry.
You can usually move your knee right after surgery, but it will be painful. Your doctor will give you some exercises you can do to keep the blood flowing in your leg and help prevent blood clots. It is important that you work on quad sets. Quad sets will assure your knee is fully straight and you won’t develop a contracture later on. Your doctor will also send you home with medication or advice for managing pain.
Move around: 2 to 4 weeks after ACL surgery
About two weeks after surgery, you will be able to start putting some weight on your knee. Your doctor will probably fit you for a knee brace to wear for a few weeks.
You will also begin physical therapy between two and four weeks after surgery.
Rehabilitation: 2 to 6 months after ACL surgery
Rehabilitation is a vital part of your ACL recovery and is essential to getting back to regular physical activity. Your program can last anywhere from two months to six months or longer. Your doctor will help you find a program that is suited to your recovery goals.
Physical therapy programs include basic programs to help you regain strength and stability, injury-specific programs, or sport-specific programs.
When to call the doctor
If you have concerns about how you’re healing or have signs of infection, call your doctor right away.
- Blood soaking through the bandages
- Discharge coming from the incision
- Swelling or pain in your calf
- Fever above 101°F
- Pain that does not go away with medication
Your knee needs time to heal, so be patient and take it slow. Do not rush the recovery process or try to speed up recovery. It’s important to listen to your doctor and work with him or her to be sure your knee is healing correctly and that you’re not pushing yourself too fast or too soon.
Editor's Note: This infographic was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
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