My Journey Through ACL Rehabilitation - Part 2
Rehabilitation from ACL surgery is long and intense and so very worth it in the end. I was surprised to be told that I would start physical therapy just three days after my reconstructive surgery, and only because I had my surgery on a Friday and no places were open until Monday.
When I heard “physical therapy,” I immediately pictured in-depth crazy exercises, which scared me. I still couldn’t move my leg all that much without pain, how on earth was I going to be able to do physical therapy? Thankfully, I already knew my physical therapist from past injuries, so that saved me from the anxiety of having to meet a new person and learn the dynamics between me and them. I would come to be intimately familiar with anxiety and uncertainty, though.
For any of you who have injured your ACL and are here to see what the process is like, the first day of physical therapy isn’t terrible. All I had to do was lift my leg two inches off the table and do quad contractions. I’m not going to lie, though, it’s difficult. Your leg is trying to figure out what the heck happened to it, why there’s a screw through two of your bones, why a piece of your hamstring or patellar tendon is no longer there, why there is foreign tissue in a place that was just home to swelling after your injury. In the moment, everything sucks. I constantly questioned why I got surgery (even though my doctor told me if I didn’t get surgery I would have arthritis before turning 18), and why this happened to me.
I don’t remember every part of physical therapy, when you get to move on to new exercises, when you get to do more challenging things. The process is slow. It’s hard to see the progress you’re making while in the moment. That’s something I would encourage everyone to do while doing any sort of rehab—focus on what you have accomplished.
My older brother actually had the same surgery a year prior, though he also tore his meniscus. Two days after he was released from all care, I tore my ACL again, but to the point where I could no longer walk, no longer ignore it. Throughout my rehab, I kept comparing myself to him, to his recovery. ACL rehabilitation after surgery can vary anywhere from 6 to 12 months. I had a friend who recovered in 3 months. My brother recovered in 7. I was released from all care at 10 months, but didn’t feel 100% again until a year and a half after my surgery. Everything I did I compared to my brother. At this time, he was already four steps ahead of me. At this point, he could already walk.
My PT kept telling me I can’t compare myself to anyone. Everyone heals differently. That didn’t stop me, though. I vividly remember the feeling of defeat. I was always exhausted after PT, I never felt like I was reaching my goals, and I just wanted to be better. My PT, orthopedist, and family were all trying to get me to see everything I had accomplished. But I didn’t feel like it was any big thing. So what if I could partially bear weight? I still couldn't walk. So what if I could bend my knee to 90°? It still wasn’t normal. So what, so what, so what?
I don’t think I had an end-goal in mind, other than to get better. The longer rehab went on, the less I wanted to return to sports. Why would I go back if I could just reinjure myself and have to go through all of this again? The lack of a concrete goal made rehab for me even harder. I realize now it was my first brush with depression. I remember getting in the car after physical therapy one day with my mom and just breaking down. I cried about how I didn’t feel like I was accomplishing anything, how I didn’t feel like I was getting better and how I never thought I would get better. I cried about how exhausted I was, from the exercises, from trying to stay positive, from lugging my leg around and hobbling along on crutches. I was so tired of crutches.
The year prior I had injured my foot, and 8 doctors couldn't tell me what was wrong. I was put in a boot and on crutches for 4 months. Three months after that I tore my ACL to the point of being unable to walk, so I was put on crutches for that until I could see someone--three weeks later. When I was misdiagnosed with a knee strain, I was on crutches for 8 weeks before being told it was my ACL. I didn’t get off crutches for a few months after surgery, though I don’t remember when exactly. For just my knee injury, I used crutches for about 6 consecutive months. I was tired of the elbow pain, of the inability to walk, of the cripple jokes I got at school, of everything. But still, I powered on. I went to physical therapy three times a week. I hobbled onto and off of the bus for school everyday. I was slowly getting better.
I don’t remember how it ended or when my mental health improved; it was 5 years ago this coming July. But it gets better. You get better. Focus on your accomplishments, look back to where you started--struggling to lift your leg two inches in the air--and see how far you’ve come. Take pride in the fact that you went through a reconstructive surgery and are getting better. It takes time, so be patient with yourself. It’s easy to get discouraged, easy to not see all the work you’ve done, everything you’ve achieved. Your feelings are valid, and it’s normal to get frustrated. But keep your head high, because you’re amazing, and you’ve got this. I also know it's very easy to stop doing your PT exercises after being released from care. You've been released, so you're better, right? Yes and no. The exercises they give you are to make sure that the muscles in and around your knee are strong so that you have the best chance at staying healthy. I stopped doing my exercises, and my knee sometimes gives me issues now--it can lock and hurt and make me alter the way I move and am doing things to stop it from hurting. If I had kept up with my exercises I would not have this problem now, so my biggest recommendation is to keep doing them.
I never returned to sports because the idea of having to go through all of that again scared me. Through my schooling and experience with patients, however, I want to encourage everyone to try and get back out there and do what you were doing before your surgery. Your (previously) injured knee is so much less likely to get reinjured than you think. It’s all a mental game, I have found. Your body can handle so much more than you think, and you just have to get over that mental block. So go back out there and keep being amazing and doing the things that you love, because you just survived a reconstructive knee surgery. And you can do anything you set your mind to.