What is anterior cruciate ligament (acl) surgery ?

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Surgery
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ACL Reconstruction Surgery

How can you care for yourself after anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery?


  • Rest when you feel tired. Getting enough sleep will help you recover. Sleep with your knee raised, but not bent. Put a pillow under your foot. Keep your leg raised as much as you can for the first few days.
  • You can use a brace and crutches to move around the house to do daily tasks. Don't put weight on your leg without these until your doctor says it's okay. Your thigh muscles will be weak, so take your time and be safe. You will have the crutches for 1 to 2 weeks.
  • If you have a brace, leave it on except when you exercise your knee or you shower. (Not all doctors use braces.) Be careful not to put the brace on too tight. You will probably need to use it for 2 to 6 weeks.
  • For about 12 weeks, do not do any strenuous activity. This includes not only sports, but also things like mowing lawns, raking leaves, and shoveling snow.
  • You may shower 24 to 48 hours after surgery, if your doctor okays it. When you shower, keep your bandage and incision dry by taping a sheet of plastic to cover them. It might be best to get a shower stool to sit on. If you have a brace, only take it off if your doctor says it's okay.
  • If your doctor does not want you to shower or remove your brace, you can take a sponge bath.
  • Do not take a bath, swim, use a hot tub, or soak your leg for 2 weeks or until your doctor says it's okay.
  • You can drive when you are no longer using crutches or a knee brace, are no longer taking prescription pain medicine, and have some control over your knee. For most people, this takes 1 to 2 weeks.
  • How soon you can go back to work depends on your job. If you sit at work, you may be able to go back in 1 to 2 weeks. But if you are on your feet at work, it may take 4 to 6 weeks. If you are very physically active in your job, it may take 4 to 6 months.


  • You can eat your normal diet. If your stomach is upset, try bland, low-fat foods like plain rice, broiled chicken, toast, and yogurt. Drink plenty of fluids.
  • You may notice that your bowel movements are not regular right after your surgery. This is common. Try to avoid constipation and straining with bowel movements. You may want to take a fiber supplement every day. If you have not had a bowel movement after a couple of days, ask your doctor about taking a mild laxative.


  • Your doctor will tell you if and when you can restart your medicines. They will also give you instructions about taking any new medicines.
  • If you stopped taking aspirin or some other blood thinner, your doctor will tell you when to start taking it again.
  • Take pain medicines exactly as directed.
    • If the doctor gave you a prescription medicine for pain, take it as prescribed.
    • If you are not taking a prescription pain medicine, ask your doctor if you can take an over-the-counter medicine.
  • If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, take them as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • If you think your pain medicine is making you sick to your stomach:
    • Take your medicine after meals (unless your doctor has told you not to).
    • Ask your doctor for a different pain medicine.

Incision care

  • If you have a bandage over your incision, keep the bandage clean and dry. Follow your doctor's instructions. Your doctor will probably want you to leave the bandage on until you come back to the office. If your doctor allows it, you may be able to remove the bandage 48 to 72 hours after your surgery.
  • If you have strips of tape on the incision, leave the tape on for a week or until it falls off. Keep the area clean and dry.


  • Do your rehab exercises as instructed. Exercise in a rehab program is an important part of your treatment. It will help you improve your knee's range of motion and regain your muscle strength.
  • If you are given a continuous passive motion machine, use it as directed. This machine will do some of the exercises for you. You will use it for about 2 weeks.

Ice and elevation

  • Put ice or a cold pack on your knee for 10 to 20 minutes at a time. Try to do this every 1 to 2 hours for the next 3 days (when you are awake). Put a thin cloth between the ice and your skin. If your doctor recommended cold therapy using a portable machine, follow the instructions that came with the machine.
  • For 3 days after surgery, prop up the sore leg on a pillow when you ice it or anytime you sit or lie down. Try to keep it above the level of your heart. This will help reduce swelling.
  • If your doctor gave you support stockings, wear them as long as you are told to.

How well does anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery work?

Most people who have ACL surgery have reduced pain, good knee stability, and a return to normal activities. But some still have knee pain and instability. A few people may need another surgery (revision ACL reconstruction). Revision ACL reconstruction is generally not as successful as the initial ACL reconstruction.

How do you prepare for your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery?

Surgery can be stressful. This information will help you understand what you can expect. And it will help you safely prepare for surgery.

Preparing for surgery

  • You will have a chance to talk to your physical therapist. Physical rehabilitation is a big part of your recovery. Your therapist may teach you some exercises that will help prepare your knee for surgery.
  • You may need to shower or bathe with a special soap the night before and the morning of your surgery. The soap contains chlorhexidine. It reduces the amount of bacteria on your skin that could cause an infection after surgery.
  • Be sure you have someone to take you home. Anesthesia and pain medicine will make it unsafe for you to drive or get home on your own.
  • Understand exactly what surgery is planned, along with the risks, benefits, and other options.
  • Tell your doctor ALL the medicines, vitamins, supplements, and herbal remedies you take. Some may increase the risk of problems during your surgery. Your doctor will tell you if you should stop taking any of them before the surgery and how soon to do it.
  • If you take a medicine that prevents blood clots, your doctor may tell you to stop taking it before your surgery. Or your doctor may tell you to keep taking it. (These medicines include aspirin and other blood thinners.) Make sure that you understand exactly what your doctor wants you to do.
  • Make sure your doctor and the hospital have a copy of your advance directive. If you don’t have one, you may want to prepare one. It lets others know your health care wishes. It’s a good thing to have before any type of surgery or procedure.

What are the risks of anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery?

ACL reconstruction surgery is generally safe, but all surgery has risks.

  • Problems that can happen during or soon after surgery include:
    • Infection.
    • Damage to the nerves around the knee. This could cause numbness or difficulty moving the leg.
    • A blood clot in the leg. Sometimes this can travel from the leg to the lung and cause a serious problem.
    • Unexpected bleeding.
    • The usual risks of anesthesia.
  • Problems that can happen later include:
    • Scarring in the knee. This may make movement difficult.
    • Pain in the front of the knee.
    • Loss of full range of motion in the knee.
    • A failure of the graft. This may cause the knee to be unstable. This may be from reinjury or loosening of the graft.

What is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery?

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four knee ligaments that connect the upper leg bone (femur) with the lower leg bone (tibia). When you injure or tear your ACL, your knee is less stable. It may "give out" when you do not expect it and then become stiff and swollen.

Surgery can help your knee feel better. But in some cases, the knee may not be as strong as before it was injured.

This type of surgery replaces your damaged ACL with a new one. The new one is called a graft. Most of the time, the graft is a tendon taken from your own knee or hamstring. But it may come from a donor.

After surgery, most people can return to their normal activities.

What can you expect as you recover from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery?

After you recover, you should have less pain. And your knee should be more stable.

How soon you can go back to work depends on your job. If you sit at work, you may be able to go back in 1 to 2 weeks. If you are on your feet at work, it may take 4 to 6 weeks. If you are very physically active in your job, it may take 4 to 6 months.

A rehabilitation (rehab) program can help your knee get better faster.

  • Your rehab may start before surgery. Your doctor or physical therapist may recommend strength and motion exercises to prepare for surgery.
  • After surgery, you will do exercises as part of your rehab program. This often lasts up to a year.
  • Rehab is hard work. Many people say it feels like "having a second job."

If you commit to your rehab and work hard, you will see a lot of improvement in a few months. Within a year, you should be able to do all the activities you did before. This includes playing sports. But you may have to wear a brace when you play sports.

After anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery: Overview

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery replaces the damaged ligament with a new ligament called a graft. In most cases, the graft is a tendon taken from your own knee or hamstring. In some cases, the graft comes from a donor.

You will feel tired for several days. Your knee will be swollen. And you may have numbness around the cut (incision) on your knee. Your ankle and shin may be bruised or swollen. You can put ice on the area to reduce swelling. Most of this will go away in a few days. You should soon start seeing improvement in your knee.

You may be able to return to most of your regular activities within a few weeks. But it will be several months before you have complete use of your knee. It may take as long as 6 months to a year before your knee is ready for hard physical work or certain sports. Surgery can help. But even after surgery, your knee may not be as strong as it was before the injury. You will need to build your strength and the motion of your joint with rehabilitation (rehab) exercises.

How soon you can return to sports or exercise depends on how well you follow your rehab program and how well your knee heals. Your doctor or physical therapist will give you an idea of when you can return to these activities. Most people can jog in about 4 months and run or cycle in about 4 to 6 months. You may need to wear a knee brace when you play sports.

What happens on the day of your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) reconstruction surgery?

  • Follow the instructions exactly about when to stop eating and drinking. If you don't, your surgery may be canceled. If your doctor told you to take your medicines on the day of surgery, take them with only a sip of water.
  • Take a bath or shower before you come in for your surgery. Do not apply lotions, perfumes, deodorants, or nail polish.
  • Do not shave the surgical site yourself.
  • Take off all jewelry and piercings. And take out contact lenses, if you wear them.

At the hospital or surgery center

  • Bring a picture ID.
  • The area for surgery is often marked to make sure there are no errors.
  • You will be kept comfortable and safe by your anesthesia provider. The anesthesia may make you sleep. Or it may just numb the area being worked on.
  • The surgery will take about 1 to 3 hours.
  • Your leg may be in a leg brace to limit motion.
  • You may have a device that applies cold treatment to your knee.
  • You will have crutches for 1 to 2 weeks. It may help to have a backpack or another way to carry items.

Why is anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery done?

The goal of ACL surgery is to:

  • Restore normal or almost normal stability in the knee.
  • Restore the level of function you had before the knee injury.
  • Limit loss of function in the knee.
  • Prevent injury or degeneration to other parts of the knee.

Hamstring Graft for Anterior Cruciate Ligament Repair

Hamstring graft for ACL surgery, showing the tendons used and the graft placed in the upper and lower leg bones

For anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery, the replacement graft can be harvested from up to three tendons. The surgeon uses part of the tendon from the semitendinosus muscle and part of the tendon from the gracilis muscle. The graft is pulled through tunnels that were drilled in the upper and lower leg bones. Then the graft is secured with screws or staples.

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