An Inside Look at an ACL Tear Recovery

The anterior cruciate ligament is an important—and fragile—body part for athletes.

It's a ligament that attaches the femur to the tibia through the knee. Particularly with athletes who do cutting or change-of-direction moves in training or competition, an ACL tear is a somewhat common injury.

Once the ACL is injured, the athlete has a decision to make. You can live with a torn ACL, but it will forever hinder your physical capabilities. Or you can surgically repair the ACL and go through months of intense rehabilitation.

Here is the story of two athletes who went through the surgery and rehab. Whitney Hand and Kendall Wallace are both basketball players who tore their ACL on the court. Being college athletes, their rehabilitation was done on campus, and it was aggressive.

But their story can answer the question many athletes have after a diagnosis: Now that I've torn my ACL, what's next?

The Injury

Hand, who plays at the University of Oklahoma, was running down the court during a game against San Diego State in 2009. When the ball came loose behind her, she stopped quickly to go for the ball. When her foot planted, her knee dislocated and she tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus as well as a good amount of cartilage.

Wallace, who plays at Nevada-Las Vegas, was also cutting when his knee gave way. He jumped up to catch a pass, and tried to dart left instantly after landing on the floor.

"It was a move I've made a million times," Wallace said.

His knee wasn't ready this time. It collapsed inward, although he didn't feel much pain.

"I felt it give, and I felt a little snap, and then it was just burning," Wallace said. "It felt like it was on fire for 20 seconds. I didn't feel any pain after that. I felt like I could walk it off and play, but I didn't because I knew something was up with it."

While Hand pretty much destroyed her knee, Wallace had only an ACL tear and no other damage. Still, the two athletes had one thing in common--they weren't going to be doing anything athletically for a long time.

The Surgery

Hand's knee was swollen for weeks after the injury, and surgery wasn't done until the swelling subsided. She finally went under the knife about three weeks after initially hurting it.

"I was wanting to get it over with," Hand said. "I was ready to attack it. I was sick of waiting around not being able to do anything. I was ready to get the process started."

Wallace, meanwhile, did strength-training exercises on his knee for about two weeks to get it ready for surgery. He finally had it operated on 17 days after the injury.

ACL reconstructive surgery involves using a replacement graft from a different part of your body, or from a cadaver. Three grafts are most common: a hamstring graft, a patellar tendon graft and a cadaver graft. The new graft is inserted in place of the torn ligament.

"My trainer showed me a surgery on the computer," Wallace said. "Once you go in there, you lay down, and once you get that anesthesia in you, it's over. You wake up in the recovery room."

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