Staying On Track: Tips For Taking On Knee Swelling Post ACL Reconstruction
The Danger of Success
One of the most common orthopedic surgeries performed is the repair of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) in the knee. Injuries to the ACL vary in degree, with more extreme cases (type 3 sprains) often requiring surgical reconstruction of the affected structures. This requires the use of a graft—essentially a harvested portion of ligament from another part of the body—to make the fix.  And while these surgeries are very successful, recovery is a lengthy process.
Athletes, for instance, usually need at least six months before they’re good to get back to the gym, court, or field. What makes ACL injuries particularly tricky is that the likelihood of re-injury during this period is significantly elevated. In fact, according to one study form 2016 published in the British Journal Of Sports Medicine, about one in three athletes hurt the same knee post-surgery, often because they haven’t let themselves heal up all the way.  It’s understandable, especially if the surgery went well, but care needs to be taken.
So, if you need ACL reconstruction or are recovering from it now, how do you avoid re-injury? A big factor is taking on the swelling that occurs in the weeks and months afterwards.
Effectively Reducing Swelling
Swelling inevitably occurs after surgery, and the success of recovery can be determined by how well this is managed. In the hospital, this will be closely monitored and within the first 24 hours measures will be taken such as draining the area of fluids. However, once you’re at home, it becomes your job to take it on, and you’ll want to anyway, as this is often the source of discomfort and complications.
So what do you do?
Expect significant swelling for up to six to eight weeks after ACL reconstruction. It’s usually recommended that you ice the knee for 15 to 20 minutes at a time four to five times a day.  You want to get into this habit because you’ll likely need to keep doing this for up to four months.
Rest & Elevation:
Staying off your feet for the first is crucial in the immediate recovery from surgery, especially in the first week. But while you are resting, you also need to elevate the affected knee so that it’s above the level of the heart. Here, you can lie on the couch and use pillows to prop it up.
As your doctor will tell you, anti-inflammatory (and pain managing) drugs will be necessary as you recover. In the early going you’ll be on prescription meds, which you should take as directed. The idea will be to gradually wean yourself off these as the condition improves.
Use Your Crutches:
For the first one to two weeks post-surgery, you’ll be using crutches to help you get around and keep weight off the knee. Don’t be in a rush to get off these; you’ll likely need your doctor’s approval before you’re back on two feet.
Your doctor will also recommend that you wear special gear designed to place extra pressure on the knee. In most cases, you’ll need to have it on non-stop for the first couple weeks, though you can take it off at night from weeks three to eight. This drives out excess fluids and helps reduce inflammation.
Clearly, while this swelling is a normal part of recovery, it’s something that you can take on and control. It’s also important to emphasize that, as you start getting back into physical activity, you’ll need to listen to your body. If you feel pain in the knee, stop what you’re doing and call your doctor. What you don’t want to do is to aggravate or completely re-injure that healing ACL.
Bending & Not Breaking
Especially if you’re on your feet for work or a sports enthusiast, ACL injury is incredibly frustrating and painful. Just remember: Recovery is not only possible but probable so long as you’re careful about listening to your doctor and disciplined about keeping up your end. As difficult as it can be—especially in the early going—brighter days are ahead. You will be back on your feet doing what you love.
If you’re interested in learning more about ACL Reconstruction or any other orthopedic surgery, talk to a Patient Care Manager at Onward Orthopedics. The specialists and surgeons at these clinics employ the latest in techniques and technologies to ensure successful recovery from a wide variety of injuries and conditions. Learn more about what they do by calling (800) 577-1693 today!
- “Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries – Orthoinfo – AAOS”. 2018. Aaos.Org. Accessed February 6 2018. https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/anterior-cruciate-ligament-acl-injuries/.
- Grindem, Hege, Lynn Snyder-Mackler, Håvard Moksnes, Lars Engebretsen, and May Arna Risberg. 2016. “Simple Decision Rules Can Reduce Reinjury Risk By 84% After ACL Reconstruction: The Delaware-Oslo ACL Cohort Study”. British Journal Of Sports Medicine50 (13): 804-808. BMJ. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2016-096031.
- Jackson, Ross. 2017. “7 Key Tips To Reduce And Control Knee Swelling After Your ACL Surgery – ACL Injury Recovery And Rehabilitation”. ACL Injury Recovery And Rehabilitation. Accessed February 6 2018.