5 Lessons I Learned From ACL Injury

My ACL has been repaired for the second time in just over six months. I can’t believe it’s already been that long. Remember how I complained about not being able to run for another 5-6 months after my surgery? Have I started running yet? No. Am I OK with that? Yes, because I know that I haven’t been ready.

Today I went to see my doctor. I’m not quite there yet. It’s not even close to being 100 percent.
My ACL is a little looser than he prefers, but that’s fine. It simply means that I must continue to give it the time it requires to mend and set. This is one of the risks when you have surgery to revise a previous ligament reconstruction – it can take longer to heal and the revisions tend to be looser.

I’ve been cleared to start trying to run and bike – basically anything that involves moving straight ahead. My doctor wants me to be careful doing side-to-side movement – that’s what could potentially loosen my ligament more. There’s a lot that I need to do in terms of strengthening my hips and glutes to give me the lateral strength and support that I need. In the back of my head, I’ve been daydreaming about a surf trip to Costa Rica in January. I asked my doctor about it. He said, come see me in three months. Drat.

This whole experience has been humbling and frustrating. It’s hard when I want my body to cooperate, when I feel like I’m doing everything that I am supposed to be doing but I still am not seeing the progress that I want. Then, I read about research presented at the American Orthopaedic Social for Sports Medicine Annual Meeting indicating that patients who undergo repeated ACL reconstructions or revisions surgery are unlikely to return to prior activity levels even though they show basic functional improvement. Fantastic. There’s part of me that doesn’t want to be careful anymore. I just want to be.

crossroad in life

At the same time, I’ve also learned a lot through the process. I hope these lessons will help others if, unfortunately, they get injured.

1. It is not the end of the world if you can’t exercise for X weeks/months.

You won’t wither away or gain a million pounds. I’m not saying that it’s not hard, especially when fitness is a big part of your life, but you have to respect your body and your injury. Your body needs time to recover. It’s better to take a little bit of time off now than try to do just one more workout and risk a more serious injury which may require surgery (ahem). In the long run, it will be worth it to be healthy and injury-free.

2. Be patient and forgiving of yourself.

You will be weaker than you were pre-injury. You will be slower. You may have to retrain your body to do the most basic things. For me, the hardest part of trusting my body to learn to walk again after surgery. So many times I have wanted to rush the process, to go back to the routine I was doing before I was injured, to just be done with it and move one with my life. But I know that’s not the smart thing to do. Instead, I’ve learned to appreciate the little things and to be thankful for the progress that I have made.

3. Recovery takes longer as you get older.

Sad but true. When I had my first surgery in my early 20s, rehab and recovery seemed like a breeze. In fact, I have very little memory of it. It just happened. I got better and I continued to do whatever I wanted to do. Things are taking longer this time around. Instead of being frustrated, I am trying to recognize that this is where my body is now and what it’s capable of. Instead of berating it, I’m trying to work with it.

4. Do your physical therapy exercises.

Seriously, do them. I know that it can be tedious and annoying to do leg lifts three times a day, every day but consistency is the key with rehab. These exercises are designed to strengthen weak or tight muscles or to correct muscle imbalances. When are muscles are imbalanced, we tend to overcompensate which can lead to injury.

Your physical therapist will use a combination of weight-bearing and non-weight-bearing activities to help you increase your capacity to put weight on your knee in the first four weeks after surgery. To protect the new ACL, the exercises will focus on your thigh muscles and may be confined to a specific range of motion.

5. Trust your instincts.

At first, I went to a physical therapy practice near my home because I was not interested in negotiating the NYC public transportation system on crutches in order to go to a PT practice in Manhattan 2-3 times a week. From the beginning, I didn’t necessarily feel “taken care of” but I figured that ACL reconstruction is fairly common and that the rehab protocol is standard. What difference would it make?

The approach makes all the difference. 2-3 months into treatment, I decided to switch practices and I’m SO glad that I did. After my first visit to my new therapist, I felt a million times better. My treatment is monitored much more closely and I’ve been making greater progress. Make sure that you find a physical therapist that you are comfortable with.


Cold therapy has long been used to relieve pain following surgery. By numbing pain mediators and receptors, it has an analgesic (pain-relieving) action. The use of ice packs or ice baths in traditional cold therapy can be dirty and inconvenient. More convenient and comfortable is a system that continuously runs cold water through a formfitting wrap made specifically for the knee joint.
This may make it simpler to stick to a cold therapy routine, reducing pain and speeding up recovery time.

I know many others have shared their stories of injury and recovery. It’s been extremely helpful for me to read these stories and to know that I’m not alone. Here are some that inspired me:

Tell me, have you come back from injury? What helped you through the process and what lesson did you learn?