Picture a football player making his way to the end zone. To get there, he must dodge and weave around opposing players, turning quickly in the process. If one of his feet stays planted while he makes such a turn, his body goes one way and his leg goes the other. If he's unlucky, that will cause the popping sound and knee pain that indicate an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) sprain -- one of the most common sports injuries.
Swelling will begin almost immediately and certainly within the first 12 hours, and this will help the football player's trainer to distinguish the injury from an injury to another knee structure called the meniscus, which would involve swelling that developed gradually over a number of hours or days. If the ACL is stretched, the injury will qualify as a strain, but if it's torn it will obviously qualify as a tear. To determine if the ACL is torn, the trainer may ask the football player to straighten his leg. Like some people with an ACL tear, he may not be able to.
About one in 3,000 people in the United States injure an ACL each year, and research shows that 70% of these injuries are sports-related. Any activity that involves abrupt twisting and pivoting or sudden stopping and starting can cause the injury. Alpine skiers, gymnasts, basketball players, soccer players and, obviously, football players are most commonly affected. Female athletes are also more at risk, because their muscles, ligaments and joints are not as strong as male athletes and therefore cannot withstand as much pressure.
For most mild sprains or tears, noninvasive care is effective. If, however, someone has a severe ACL tear, he or she may require surgery. In addition, athletes or people who rely heavily on the stabilizing properties of the ACL, and who have previously injured their ligament, may need surgery to ensure the ligament is strong enough to withstand additional stress.
If surgery isn't necessary, proper care can be helpful for restoring and maintaining the knee joint's function. If you have an ACL sprain or tear, your healthcare practitioner can relieve pain, decrease swelling and improve knee joint stability and motion. Combined with your commitment to rehabilitative exercises, this will quickly get you back in the game.