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Tearing My ACL: Well, I Didn’t See That Coming

Written by Anne Slater AT, ATC
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Anne Slater 4First, you should know that I am not what one would call a “weekend warrior.” It’s true that I have not been in my true peak physical condition since my days participating in high school sports. That said, I stay pretty active playing team sports in adult rec leagues; I play volleyball every chance I can get, I am always willing to jump into a pick-up game of ultimate Frisbee, or join a game of Spikeball at the beach.  I’m in what I call “volleyball shape.” I rarely run voluntarily. When I was asked to sub for a soccer league by a coworker, I was not trying to relive the glory days; I thought, here’s an opportunity to get some cardio and have fun at the same time.

When I got back out on the artificial turf of the indoor soccer field, the smells were familiar to me, though I had not played soccer since 8th grade. It was not until the first whistle blew, and I started sucking wind in the 8th minute that I thought, maybe I’d had a good reason for quitting soccer. Too late to turn back, I did my best and hustled for as long as I could, then raised my hand begging for a sub. This is how every game went: I started the first half optimistically enough, then reality set in and I realized how unfit I was. My teammates were good-spirited and gave me credit for trying, but most of them were in college and played soccer regularly. I found myself trying to keep up with their pace, and more often than not, I struggled to do anything productive while I was on the field. All this lead, in part, to what happened in that final game of that season.

I chose my course of study and current career while I was a junior in high school. Sports medicine had always appealed to me; I figured that I enjoy being a part of the world of sports, and medicine is an ever-growing field.  I didn’t spend a lot of time in the athletic training room during my high school sports career. I went in there primarily for the social aspects, and to have my ankle taped once in awhile. I’d never even really sprained my ankle until I was in college, a week after we started studying the lower extremity in one of my first athletic training classes. This was a fairly tame injury considering the others we were learning about at the time, and I recovered in less than two weeks. This was the most severe injury I’d ever sustained, aside from an ill-advised, no-handed, swinging incident when I was 6 that left me with a broken arm. That is, until my final indoor soccer game last February.

Sprinting down the field for a pass, I was trying to beat an opponent, while simultaneously looking to my fellow striker and planning to center the ball. As I landed on my fully extended left leg, my torso started to rotate towards centerfield…

Suddenly, I felt ripping, tearing, and pain.

InjuriesYouShouldKnow 550x450My leg crumpled beneath me, and I landed in a heap on the turf. Believe me, I’ve seen a few knee injuries from my position on the sideline, and I’ve seen them on the field. Patients have often described their knee injuries to me as a “popping” sound or sensation. Well, I felt no pop. Maybe it was just my knee or my injury, but to my ears the sound was gruesome. I couldn’t move it at first, so I actually thought I had dislocated it. Once my teammates helped me off the field, and I was in a better position, it was clear that was not the case. And I was pretty sure I knew what I’d done.

The events that followed were confirmation, and it felt like nothing I would have expected. Being in the unique position now to understand both sides of this particular injury, I knew my mechanism was classic: a noncontact plant and twist. I also knew what to expect in the days and weeks to come, but even my extensive knowledge on the subject did little to prepare me for the realness of surgery, the pain to follow, and the entire recovery process. I had watched a close friend of mine go through the same thing the year previous – his case is close to my heart because being an athlete was a huge part of his identity, and there are some definite psychological consequences to a devastating injury that I was hoping to avoid.

Being injured takes a mental toll on an athlete, it robs them of one of the most important roles in their life. Career-ending or even season-ending injuries can send an athlete spiraling into a depression. Many struggle with maintaining a positive attitude throughout the rehabilitation process, both the mental and physical isolation from their teammates, and the fear of re-injury. For many athletes, it can be beneficial to make rehabilitation into a sort of competition. While it is not the same as participating in their sport, athletes are, by nature, highly competitive, and even being in competition with him or herself can help keep them motivated. In my case, I knew the benchmarks I had to hit, and while I am still lacking in a few areas, I know how much I have improved because I frequently ask my physical therapist to take objective measures such as range of motion and strength. It is helpful for me to have highly specific goals and a timeframe in which to achieve them.

While I don’t have a sport to rush back to, I still hope to return to playing competitive volleyball in adult leagues. My sister suffered back-to-back ACL tears while in high school, and it is a feat I have no interest in repeating. When dealing with an unexpected injury or surgery, it is important to know what your end goals are. What level of activity do you need to achieve to be happy with your recovery? What activities can you not live without? Is there anything you haven’t been able to do for an extended period of time that you would like to get back to? I have no interest in returning to soccer, the incidence of re-injury will be too high for me in a contact sport with pivoting motions and a predisposition to ligament tears. My end goal is volleyball. But for many the end goal is soccer, for others it’s golfing, for some it’s playing with their children or grandchildren. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sport or an activity you need for everyday life, all that matters is communicating those goals to your physician/surgeon and physical therapist so they can help you achieve it. Surgery often means a long road to full recovery. I am not near the end of my rehab, but knowing my physical therapy team at CPR will work with me to aid in my recovery in whatever way possible helps more than I can say.

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