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ACL Injury: Exercises to Do Before Treatment


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After an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury, you lose leg strength and motion and stability of the knee. It is important that you regain your leg strength and motion as soon as possible, whether you choose to have surgery for your ACL injury or not. Exercises to regain muscle strength and knee motion should begin before you start treatment, whether treatment is a rehabilitation (rehab) program only or surgery plus rehab.

Key points

  • After an ACL injury, your knee will not be stable, may be painful, and may have a limited range of motion. You may eventually develop osteoarthritis in the knee.
  • If you do exercises to strengthen your thigh muscles (quadriceps and hamstrings) and regain knee motion soon after an ACL injury, you will be better prepared for a rehab program or for surgery with a rehab program.
  • You should start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of the exercises. Do not push yourself to the point that you feel pain. Talk to your doctor about how to best progress through the exercises.

The exercises outlined here are common exercises used after an ACL injury. But your doctor may create a specific set of exercises for you. Check with your doctor before you do any exercises.

Return to topic:

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four knee ligaments that connect the upper leg bone (femur) with the large lower leg bone (tibia). The ACL stabilizes knee movement by:

  • Preventing the knee from sliding or twisting abnormally when the leg is straight or slightly bent.
  • Preventing the knee from being stretched or straightened beyond its normal limits (hyperextended).
  • Supporting the knee ligaments that keep the knee from bending sideways.

See a picture of the knee and the ACLClick here to see an illustration..

When the ACL tears, the blood vessels around the ligament tear and blood can fill the knee joint, causing swelling. This can result in both pain and loss of motion. The inactivity following an ACL injury often results in weakening of the muscle in the front of your thigh, the quadriceps. If nothing is done after an ACL injury, you may develop chronic ACL deficiency—your knee may become less stable, leading to abnormal knee joint movement and premature osteoarthritis.

Treatment is needed for an ACL injury. Treatment is either a rehab program or ACL surgery followed by a rehab program. Surgery is generally more successful if you condition your knee and surrounding muscles before starting your treatment. This can be achieved by doing a few simple exercises. Your doctor will help you decide when to start these exercises.

Test Your Knowledge

An ACL injury can result in long-term injury to your knee.

True
False

It is important to begin doing some simple exercises after injuring your ACL and before treatment begins. Regaining leg strength and knee motion will help your treatment be more successful, whether your rehab program is done in conjunction with surgery or not.

Test Your Knowledge

It is important to do some simple exercises after injuring your ACL and before treatment begins.

True
False

Quad sets, straight-leg raises, and heel slides are common exercises used after an ACL injury. As symptoms decrease and you are able to bear weight, side-lying leg lifts, glute sets, bridges, mini-squats, heel raises, and prone hamstring curls might be added. But your doctor may want you to tailor exercises to your specific injury. Check with your doctor before you do any exercises.

You should start slowly and gradually increase the intensity of the exercises. Do not push yourself to the point that you feel pain. Talk to your doctor about how to best progress.

Test Your Knowledge

Anyone who has injured their ACL can do these exercises.

True
False

For more information about exercises for an ACL injury, talk to:

  • Your doctor.
  • A sports medicine specialist.
  • A physical therapist.
ByHealthwise Staff
Primary Medical ReviewerWilliam H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical ReviewerFreddie H. Fu, MD - Orthopedic Surgery
Last RevisedApril 5, 2012

eMedicineHealth Medical Reference from Healthwise

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