volleyball player holding adjusting her kneepad

What To Expect While Recovering From ACL Surgery

Recovering from ACL surgery can be a challenging yet crucial journey toward regaining strength and mobility in the knee. Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) surgery is performed to repair or reconstruct a torn ACL, a common injury among athletes and active individuals.

This surgery is typically recommended when nonsurgical treatments fail to provide adequate stability to the knee. The procedure typically involves repairing or replacing the damaged ligament using grafts from the patient’s own tissue or a donor’s tissue.

However, successful recovery from ACL surgery goes beyond the surgical procedure itself. It requires a guided recovery process comprised of rehabilitation exercises, physical therapy, and a comprehensive plan to ensure a safe and effective return to normal activities.

Immediate Post-Operative Phase

During the immediate post-operative phase of ACL surgery, the focus is on managing pain, controlling swelling, and initiating gentle range-of-motion exercises to promote healing and prevent complications.

Post-Operative Care: What to Expect in the Hospital

After ACL surgery, you may spend a short period of time in the hospital for monitoring and initial recovery. Medical professionals will closely monitor your vital signs and administer pain medications as needed. They will also provide instructions on wound care, assist with mobility, and guide you through the early stages of rehabilitation.

doctor and patient in a hospital

Pain and Swelling Management: Effective Strategies and Medications

Pain and swelling are common after ACL surgery, but there are effective strategies to manage them. These may include elevation, ice packs, compression bandages, and prescribed pain medications.

Your healthcare team may recommend nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) or other pain management techniques to help alleviate discomfort and reduce swelling.

Preparing for Discharge: What You Need to Know and Prepare

Before leaving the hospital, you will receive instructions for your ongoing recovery. This may include guidelines on wound care, medication management, and weight-bearing restrictions.
You will also be provided with a comprehensive rehabilitation plan, which may involve physical therapy sessions and exercises to restore knee function.

Man holding his knee in pain

It’s important to follow these instructions closely and arrange for any necessary support or equipment at home to ensure a smooth transition from the hospital to your recovery environment.

The Initial Weeks at Home

During the initial weeks at home, focusing on rest, following medical instructions, managing pain, and seeking support from healthcare professionals if needed is important.

Dressing and Wound Care: Best Practices

During the initial weeks at home, following the best practices for dressing and wound care is crucial. Keep the wound clean and dry, following the instructions provided by your healthcare provider. These may include changing dressings regularly and ensuring proper hygiene to prevent infection. Use sterile materials and gentle cleaning techniques.

If you have any concerns or notice signs of infection, contact your healthcare professional promptly.

Navigating Mobility: Crutches, Braces, and Movement Restrictions

When it comes to mobility during the initial weeks at home, crutches, braces, or movement restrictions may be necessary, depending on your condition. Follow the instructions given by your healthcare provider on how to use crutches or wear braces correctly.

You should also be cautious while moving to avoid falls or aggravating the injury.


Gradually increase activity levels as advised to ensure proper support and stability and aid the healing process.

Recognizing Complications: Symptoms That Require Immediate Medical Attention

While recovering at home, it’s essential to recognize potential complications and symptoms that require immediate medical attention.

These may include:

  • Severe pain that does not subside
  • Excessive bleeding
  • Sudden swelling
  • Signs of infection (such as redness, warmth, or pus)
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Inability to move the affected area
  • Worsening of symptoms

If any of these occur, promptly contact your healthcare provider or seek emergency medical care.

Starting Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation

Physical therapy plays a crucial role in ACL surgery recovery. It focuses on restoring knee strength, stability, and range of motion. Your physical therapist will assess your condition and develop a customized rehabilitation plan to meet your specific needs.

Early Stage Rehabilitation Exercises

During the early stage of ACL surgery recovery, rehabilitation exercises focus on gentle range-of-motion exercises, strengthening the quadriceps and hamstring muscles, and improving knee stability.

These exercises may include heel slides, straight leg raises, quad sets, and gentle cycling. Your physical therapist will guide you on proper technique and monitor your progress, gradually advancing the exercises as your knee heals.

Rehabilitation Milestones: What Progress Should You Expect?

ACL surgery recovery is a gradual process with specific milestones to achieve. Initially, the focus is reducing pain and swelling, regaining full knee extension, and achieving good control of the quadriceps. As you progress, you will work on improving muscle strength, balance, and coordination.

Rehabilitation milestones may include:

  • Achieving a full range of motion
  • Returning to normal gait
  • Performing functional movements
  • Ultimately resuming sports-specific activities

The pace of recovery varies for each individual, and your physical therapist will assess your progress and adjust the rehabilitation plan accordingly.

Long-Term Recovery and Return to Activity

After completing the initial phases of ACL surgery recovery, the focus shifts towards advancing rehabilitation, returning to normal activities, and ensuring long-term knee health.

Returning to Normal Activities: Guidelines and Timeline

The timeline for returning to normal activities after ACL surgery varies depending on individual factors and the extent of the injury. Your healthcare team will provide specific guidelines based on your progress and goals.

It is important to follow these guidelines closely to avoid re-injury. Generally, a gradual return to activities is recommended, starting with low-impact exercises and gradually increasing intensity and complexity.

woman running by the beach

Long-Term Knee Care and Injury Prevention Strategies

Even after completing ACL surgery recovery, it is crucial to prioritize long-term knee care and injury prevention. This involves maintaining a regular exercise routine to keep the knee strong and stable, incorporating flexibility and balance exercises, and following proper techniques during physical activities.

It is also important to listen to your body, rest when needed, and promptly address discomfort.

volleyball player holding adjusting her kneepad

Using appropriate protective gear and modifying high-risk movements can further reduce re-injury risk.

Emotional Aspects of Recovery

Understanding the psychological impact of surgery and recovery is essential. It’s common to experience a range of emotions, such as frustration, impatience, and even sadness, due to the limitations and challenges during recovery. Maintaining a positive mindset is crucial to overcoming these emotional hurdles.

Setting realistic expectations, celebrating small milestones, and focusing on progress can help foster a positive outlook. Additionally, building a support network of family, friends, and support groups can provide much-needed encouragement, empathy, and understanding during this journey.

Sharing experiences, seeking guidance, and receiving emotional support can contribute to a smoother recovery and a more positive overall experience.

Potential Complications and Their Management

While ACL surgery is generally safe and successful, potential complications can arise during the recovery process. Common complications from ACL surgery include infection, blood clots, graft failure, persistent pain or instability, and arthrofibrosis (excessive scar tissue formation). It is also possible for the surgery to fail.1

It’s important to be aware of warning signs such as increased swelling, redness, warmth, fever, sudden severe pain, inability to bear weight, or significant loss of range of motion. If any of these symptoms occur, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention.

Managing potential complications involves:

  • Following post-operative instructions closely
  • Attending scheduled follow-up appointments
  • Taking prescribed medications
  • Adhering to the recommended rehabilitation program

Regular communication with your healthcare team is vital to address concerns and promptly manage any complications that may arise.

Last Words

Recovering from ACL surgery requires a guided and comprehensive approach. Post-operative care, pain management, and preparing for discharge are vital aspects of the immediate post-operative phase.

Starting physical therapy and rehabilitation, along with the role of physical therapy in recovery, play a significant role in restoring knee function. Rehabilitation milestones and long-term knee care strategies further contribute to successful recovery.

In-home care and telemedicine options can provide added convenience and accessibility to ACL surgery recovery. In-home care allows for personalized attention and assistance in a familiar environment, while telemedicine enables remote consultations and monitoring, reducing the need for frequent in-person visits.

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[1] Samitier G. - Failure of Anterior Cruciate Ligament Reconstruction.;