The 7 Things No One Tells You About ACL Surgery

ACL pre-surgery

An hour before surgery, looking like I snuck some morphine already.

There is a lot you can do to mentally and physically prepare yourself if you’ve elected to have ACL surgery.
Some of the prep starts months before with what they call “pre-hab” and other bits of planning like pre-op appointments and notifying your work of absence occur closer to the actual surgery date.

But even with all of the advancements in digital communications and personal blogging, there were still aspects of my injury that I was completely shocked (and unprepared) for.


#1 Sleep is hard to come by – you don’t realize how much you roll around in bed to get comfortable
I’m not a perpetual tosser or turner, but I like a little pillow play before I enter the land of nod. When you have ACL surgery, they typically keep your leg in a massive brace to ensure it stays straight, especially when you’re sleeping. This limits how much you can move and with every slight rotation, you’re either awoken (first few nights) or thwarted (first few weeks) in your attempts to get comfortable. You never get used to it.


ACL knee brace

Beauty and the Brace

#2 Number 2 becomes priority # 1
For those of you worried about the pain (and it varies depending on what type of graft you do), it’s typically manageable. That’s because they give you great drugs like Codeine and Tylenol 3 which do a swell job of dulling, numbing and even eliminating all of the pain, leaving just a discomfort. Except all of these medications constipate you. Highly recommend from day 1 taking a stool softener and stocking up on Metamucil. That’s right, both. You’ll thank me.


#3 If your physical therapist is God, Thou Shalt Not Forget to Ice is every one of the 10 commandments
You’ve probably read about the importance of icing to reduce swelling, but it’s not until you actually see first-hand the dramatic improvements it can aid that you’ll truly become a believer. Do it religiously.


ACL recovery day 1
Day 1 – First Physio Appointment

#4 Socks are hard, Stairs are Impossible
If there’s one activity that you’re going to need assistance with, it’s traversing stairs. Most of us typically have at least one flight we need to conquer before entering the house, and it’s best to do this with supervision. If you only have small windows for when you’ll receive assistance, plan any walking or climbing for those periods. When in doubt, go up and down on your butt.


#5 Clicking in your knee is normal, but terrifying
It wasn’t long after I first felt the clicking in my knee that I envisioned going back on the operating table to fix whatever it was that was making the sound. It turns out, fluid build up has a ton of weird effects on your knee and this is one of them. If there is pain associated with the clicking, it could be cause for concern however. Tell your PT about any discomfort or challenges you’re having.


ACL range of motion
Day 5, reached 84 degrees of bend (two week target is 90)

#6 Despite Wanting To Get Better Faster, You’ll Want to Ignore Your Exercises
I hate doing my exercises. It interrupts whatever I’m doing every 60-90 minutes which comes by surprisingly quick and it is strenuous. There is little point in rushing through them and there is no point at all in skipping them. You’ll quickly lose progress such as range of motion, which is quite deflating. Set an alarm on your phone and Nike (just do it).


ACL leg after surgeryLeft Leg 2.0

#7 Losing feeling in your shin is normal, don’t expect the feeling to come back any time soon

One of the things they’ll likely tell you either at physical therapy or when you come out of anasthesia is that if you experience numbness in your foot, you should tell someone. Many of us are pretty groggy, so the next day when you touch your shin and feel less than an emo teen on prom night, you’ll panic. The fact of the matter is, when they do the surgery, they destroy the nerves in your shin. The area of numbness gradually gets smaller over time, but is unusual and takes a lot of time to get used to.


If you’re reading this, you’re likely a little nervous about what you’re about to go through. It’s normal, it’s doable and you will be fine. Do your best to plan for the time you’ll take to recover, especially financially and in terms of transportation/mobility. The rest will come with time and diligent exercise.


      Note: Because I’ve received some emails with the questions, here are the details of my injury.


    ACL torn December 27, 2012 playing American football. ACL surgery January 16, 2014 (13.5 months after injury). Done using hamstring tendon in Richmond Hill, Canada.

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