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Josh Beaumont's picture

When is it safe for a player to return to the field after an ACL injury?

This is a very challenging question. Sometimes you hear about professional athletes that come back from ACL injuries in 4 months. But most of the time, physicians will clear players to return in the 6 to 9 month range. When physicians try and determine when you are safe to return to the field, they will usually only test the ligaments in your knee as opposed to testing your overall physical ability. They will usually leave this up to the physical therapist or certified athletic trainer to make sure the athlete has regained proper control of the knee prior to returning to soccer. The ability to properly control the knee is important in returning safely to the field (see video for proper knee control). Most non-contact knee injuries result because of this. When an athlete returns to play before re-establishing control of the knee they set themselves up for re-injury of that knee or worse the other knee. This can happen because the athlete is lacking competitive soccer for 6 months and the body has become deconditioned. Returning to soccer prior to re-establishing cardiovascular and muscular fitness can also put the player at risk for other muscle injuries such as a hamstring strains.

The most important question the athletic trainer or physical therapist asks is, “is the knee functional?” I attended a conference a few years ago where a doctor stated that their success rate at 6 months was 66% versus 90% at 9 months. By waiting an extra 3 months, the surgery will more likely be successful because the knee has had time to become more functional. Most people that have torn their ACL will tell you that it takes almost 2 years for the knee to feel the same as it did prior to the injury. I believe a lot of that feeling may be attributed to rushing the rehabilitative process and not properly re-integrating back into sports. 

The video below is an example of a single leg exercise you can do to help regain knee control.

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