Q: My son is recovering from a torn ACL and is wearing a brace. When is it safe for him to return to sports?
A: Return-to-play issues frequently depend on age, the sport in question, treatment of the injury and any associated injuries. It is possible to treat an ACL rupture without surgery in some people if their muscles are strong enough and their sporting activities are not highly ACL-dependent. Some athletes might engage in swimming, biking or light running in four to 12 weeks, depending on the amount of swelling and injury severity. But the majority of athletes will need surgery to restore stability to their knee if they engage in pivoting or cutting sports. Most surgeons agree six to nine months of healing time is enough to return to full play while minimizing the risk of damaging the new ACL. Some return sooner, but there is a high risk of re-injury, potentially resulting in more surgery. We know from studies that a new ligament can take up to two years to fully heal and become healthy new tissue, so even though the knee feels great, there still should be some healthy caution. Bracing can be useful to improve confidence and perhaps the sensation of the knee's position space, but bracing alone probably does not reduce injury or re-injury rate.
- Dr. Brett Sanders, Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics; member, Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society
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