The natural history of an ACL injury without surgical intervention varies from patient to patient and depends on the patient’s activity level, degree of injury and instability symptoms.
The prognosis for a partially torn ACL is often favorable, with the recovery and rehabilitation period usually at least three months. However, some patients with partial ACL tears may still have instability symptoms. Close clinical follow-up and a complete course of physical therapy helps identify those patients with unstable knees due to partial ACL tears.
Complete ACL ruptures have a much less favorable outcome. After a complete ACL tear, some patients are unable to participate in cutting or pivoting-type sports, while others have instability during even normal activities, such as walking. There are some rare individuals who can participate in sports without any symptoms of instability. This variability is related to the severity of the original knee injury, as well as the physical demands of the patient.
About half of ACL injuries occur in combination with damage to the meniscus, articular cartilage or other ligaments. Secondary damage may occur in patients who have repeated episodes of instability due to ACL injury. With chronic instability, up to 90 percent of patients will have meniscus damage when reassessed 10 or more years after the initial injury. Similarly, the prevalence of articular cartilage lesions increases up to 70 percent in patients who have a 10-year-old ACL deficiency.
Active adult patients involved in sports or jobs that require pivoting, turning or hard-cutting as well as heavy manual work are encouraged to consider surgical treatment. This includes older patients who have previously been excluded from consideration for ACL surgery. Activity, not age, should determine if surgical intervention should be considered.
In young children or adolescents with ACL tears, early ACL reconstruction creates a possible risk of growth plate injury, leading to bone growth problems. The surgeon can delay ACL surgery until the child is closer to skeletal maturity or the surgeon may modify the ACL surgery technique to decrease the risk of growth plate injury.
A patient with a torn ACL and significant functional instability has a high risk of developing secondary knee damage and should therefore consider ACL reconstruction.
It is common to see ACL injuries combined with damage to the menisci (50 percent), articular cartilage (30 percent), collateral ligaments (30 percent), joint capsule, or a combination of the above. The “unhappy triad,” frequently seen in football players and skiers, consists of injuries to the ACL, the MCL, and the medial meniscus.
In cases of combined injuries, surgical treatment may be warranted and generally produces better outcomes. As many as 50 percent of meniscus tears may be repairable and may heal better if the repair is done in combination with the ACL reconstruction.