ACL Surgery Recovery Time: How Long Does It Take to Heal?

The ACL, or Anterior Cruciate Ligament, is one of four major ligaments in the knee. ACL injuries are common among athletes, especially those who participate in sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction, such as soccer, basketball, and football. However, ACL injuries can also occur in non-athletes due to accidents or falls.

When the ACL is torn, it usually cannot heal on its own and requires surgery to repair it. This blog discusses how ACL surgery works, how long it typically takes to recover, and what you can expect while you’re recovering from surgery.

A woman wearing a knee brace post acl surgery.

What Is ACL Surgery?

ACL reconstruction surgery replaces the torn ACL with a graft, which is a piece of tendon taken either from another part of the body (called an autograft) or from a donor (called an allograft). The procedure is usually performed arthroscopically, which means that small incisions are made in the knee and a tiny camera is used to guide the surgeon. After surgery, patients typically undergo a rehabilitation program to regain strength and range of motion.

When Is ACL Surgery Needed?

The vast majority of ACL tears that we see (around 95%) require surgical reconstruction. ACL surgery is typically necessary when:

  • The ACL tear is complete, particularly in younger, more active individuals
  • The patient wants to return to sports that involve cutting and/or pivoting
  • The ACL tear is accompanied by additional ligament injuries or meniscus damage

How Painful Is ACL Surgery?

The pain associated with ACL surgery can come from – and depend on – a variety of factors. It’s generally a combination of post-surgical pain, normal post-operative swelling, and pain related to the source of the harvested graft. Doctors treat this pain through a multimodal approach combining:

  • Preoperative and intraoperative nerve blocks
  • Pain medications
  • Postoperative therapies, including ice and compression

Does Age Impact ACL Surgery and Recovery?

While the majority of ACL tears occur in patients under the age of 50, age isn’t a limitation in having ACL surgery. However, for older adults that aren’t involved in sports or intense recreational activity, it’s sometimes possible to treat ACL injuries without surgery. Orthopedic doctors can individualize treatment plans based on a patient’s age, existing knee health, and desire to return to sports and other activities.

What Is the Typical ACL Surgery Recovery Time?

ACL surgery recovery time varies depending on several factors, including:

While most patients will return to basic functions (such as walking, climbing stairs, etc.) within 4 to 6 weeks, an athlete involved in active physical competition in sports such as soccer, football, or basketball may take 9 to 12 months to fully recover.

How Long Are You Bedridden After ACL Surgery?

You typically aren’t bedridden after ACL surgery. While rest and elevation are important for the initial healing process, patients are encouraged to begin walking the day after the procedure is completed, usually with the aid of crutches. In a routine ACL reconstruction, the majority of patients will begin physical therapy within a few days after reconstruction.

How Long Does It Take to Walk After ACL Surgery?

Recovery time varies, but generally speaking, patients can expect to start walking with crutches and a leg brace immediately after surgery and continue to do so until quadricep control improves. Barring concomitant surgery to the meniscus or other ligaments, many patients are able to walk unassisted within 1 to 2 weeks after surgery.

When Can I Return to Work After ACL Surgery?

Patients that perform work from home or at a desk at an office job may return to work within 4-7 days after surgery. Those with more strenuous jobs that require regular walking, standing, and other physical activities may take 6 weeks or more to return to work depending on the strenuousness of the job and on factors related to their particular surgery. Your orthopedic surgeon and physical therapists are the best people to advise you on when you can return to work.

How Long Does It Take to Regain Full Range of Motion After ACL Surgery?

A patient’s preoperative range of motion is the best predictor for how quickly their full range of motion will be restored after an ACL reconstruction. The majority of patients regain full range of motion within 6 to 8 weeks after surgery. For people engaged in competitive athletics or strenuous physical activity, regaining full strength and stability can take longer.

How Long Will My Knee Hurt After ACL Surgery?

Postoperative pain will vary based on surgical technique and other factors.  Acute pain typically improves within 4 – 7 days after the initial surgery and will continue to diminish thereafter. Many patients experience residual soreness and stiffness from surgery for several weeks.

What Restrictions Are There After ACL Surgery?

The greatest risk after an ACL surgery is reinjury. That’s why it’s critical to follow your surgeon and physical therapist’s instructions. Patients will need to avoid running, cutting, jumping, and agility exercises until their quadricep/hamstring function normalizes (which generally takes four months or more).

The risk of reinjury is most prominent in the first 9 months after surgery, but some athletes and patients may return more quickly to sport once they normalize their lower extremity strength and mechanics. There are a lot of factors that play a role in a return to sports, so it’s important to discuss any advancement in activity after an ACL surgery with your orthopedic surgeon.

What Is the Fastest Way to Recover from ACL Surgery?

There’s no single “fastest” way to recover from ACL surgery because healing always takes time and proper care. However, there a few steps that can optimize your recovery:

  • Recovery starts before surgery with prehabilitation. Often called “prehab,” prehabilitation is a physical therapy program designed to prepare your body for surgery.
  • Follow your doctor and physical therapists’ instructions meticulously after surgery.
  • Maintain a healthy diet with a focus on nutrient-rich foods.
  • Manage swelling with ice and gentle compression.
  • Maintain a positive attitude. Recovery is long, but the reward is worth it!

Medicines and Pain Relief

A multimodal pain management regimen is utilized after ACL surgery. This involves a combination of medications (both prescription and over-the-counter), perioperative nerve blocks, ice, compression, and other therapies (such as electrical stimulation).

Recommended Diet

With any surgery, it is recommended to maintain a well-balanced, nutrient-dense diet. Avoid fried foods, red meat, refined carbohydrates, and sugar-sweetened beverages, and seek out foods that are rich in vitamins and anti-inflammatory antioxidants.

Exercises and Activities

Initially after ACL surgery, crutches may be required. Patients are encouraged to maintain basic daily activities with their crutches after surgery. Once you’re able to walk without crutches, light, regular walking is encouraged for exercise. More strenuous exercise should be avoided until you’re guided to do so by your orthopedic surgeon and physical therapist, but many people can return to stationary biking at around 6 weeks and light jogging at about 12 weeks.

Incision and Wound Care

Based on your surgeon’s specific technique, surgical incisions generally should stay covered and dry for 3 to 5 days after surgery after which daily dressings are advised until the first follow-up appointment.

Trust Alexander Orthopaedics to Help with Your ACL Knee Pain

If you’re experiencing symptoms of an ACL tear, don’t wait to seek professional care. The experienced team at Alexander Orthopaedics specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of knee injuries, offering personalized care and advanced treatment options to help you recover and return to the activities you love. Contact us today to schedule a consultation.