Q. My son is recovering from a torn ACL and is currently wearing a brace. When is it safe for him to return to sports?
A. Return-to-play issues can be very individualized, and frequently depend on age, the sport in question, treatment of the injury, and other associated injuries. It is possible to treat an ACL rupture without surgery in some individuals if their muscles are strong enough and their sporting activities are not highly ACL dependent. Some of these individuals might engage in swimming, biking, or light running in 4-12 weeks, depending on the amount of swelling and injury severity. That being said, the majority of athletes will need surgery to restore stability to their knee if they engage in pivoting or cutting sports. If surgery is performed, most surgeons agree 6-9 months of healing time is enough to return to full play while minimizing the risk of damaging the new ACL. Some players have returned sooner, but there is a high risk of reinjury, potentially resulting in further 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 in some athletes to improve confidence and perhaps the sensation of the knee’s position space, but bracing alone probably does not reduce injury or reinjury rate. Make sure you consult closely with your surgeon and therapist about the individualized treatment plan for your knee to have a safe return to sport.
Brett Sanders, M.D.
Shoulder and Knee Surgery
Center for Sports Medicine & Orthopaedics