7 Things I Learned After Having ACL Surgery

Active exercisers know all too well the struggles of dealing with an injury—and taking even a week off your beloved HIIT workout can seem like the end of the world when you rely on it to de-stress. I’ve personally had my fair share of runner’s knee and light sprains, but last fall, I fell and tore my anterior cruciate ligament or ACL, as it's more commonly known. It’s the key stabilizing ligament in your knee, which allows you to do all the tasks requiring pivoting motions, including soccer, HIIT, Pilates, basketball and so. much. more. Needless to say: You really need it, and it doesn’t help that ACL injury rates clock in at 100,000 to 200,000 people affected in the United States alone.

If there’s a complete tear causing your ACL injury, there’s no way it can repair itself: Surgery is the only option. It’s a long and painful process because you literally have to train your graft to behave in the same way the ACL used to. That means that doing too much too soon can damage the graft, while doing too little can delay recovery. The average recovery time is nine months, but could be more or less depending on several factors, including surgery success and how active a person was pre-surgery.

It's not all gloom and doom however, once you know what to expect, it can be easier to cope with what and ACL surgery means. Here are seven things I learned throughout my recovery process.

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Photo: Stocksy/Jovo Jovanovic

7 things to know if you have an ACL injury

1. There’s more to de-stressing than working out.

Pre-surgery, I was ridiculously active, working out five to six times a week. At the time, I was working a very stressful job, so I looked to my workouts as a time to myself, in order to relax. When that was taken away from me, I was so upset and frustrated—I snapped at everybody I cared about, and soon realized I needed to find another outlet. While the journaling and meditation practices I brought into my life could not replace that spin class high, they made me realize there were other ways to de-stress when my go-to workout wasn't an option.

2. Yes, you will lose muscle

The surgery caused a lot of damage to the muscles surrounding my knee—it was really disheartening to see years of hard work fade away in such a short amount of time. Turns out, building strength back in the quad is a huge part of the physical therapy process, which I had no idea about. So, prepare for your body to feel weak—even putting weight on my surgered leg made me feel like it was about to give way, which was really humbling after years of not paying any attention to it at all.

3. Stretching is imperative for everyone—not just those who have an injury

Most people don’t stretch nearly enough—but at PT, I learned all too often that if I didn’t stretch, I’d lose the range of motion I worked so hard to achieve (seriously; I couldn’t bend my knee all the way for three months). By stretching and keeping the body loose, I could help keep my muscles active—which is true for everyone, since tight muscles are more likely to get injured. I guess what I'm saying is: Foam roll, please.

4. Progress is not linear

My knee bent at 95 degrees; then, it bent at 92. I had no pain after doing my first SoulCycle class during recovery, but then, I could barely walk after my tenth. It seemed like I wasn’t getting better at all sometimes, which was completely disheartening. However, I had to understand that progress isn’t a linear thing—it ebbs and flows, and is dependent on the most obscure things: from how inflamed my leg was from the previous PT session to how well I was sleeping. Once started tracking my monthly progress versus my daily progress, I began to appreciate the recovery process.

5. Your support system is crucial, but even they might not understand what you’re going through.

My emotions were all over the place while I was in recovery—some days, I was annoyed that I couldn’t work out, while other days, I loved seeing my progress. This was confusing to my friends and loved ones because they had no idea what mood I might be in that day, and it was hard for me to realize that they didn’t understand what I was going through. Happily, they helped me through it with movie dates and hangouts, and lifted my spirits along the way.

6. Nervousness post-recovery is totally normal.

The day my doctor told me I was cleared, I wanted to cry. I thought I’d feel relieved, but instead, I was terrified: What did he mean that I could work out as much as I wanted and take any classes I desired? I had a friend come with me to my first boxing class because I was so scared I was going to hurt myself again, and I didn’t push myself nearly as hard as I knew I could for a good two months. But I spoke to several other people who’d had the same surgery and realized that having a little bit of stress post-recovery was normal—it was a rush of freedom I hadn’t had for so many months. I had to trust that I’d done everything I could for a smooth recovery and be confident in those efforts.

7. You’ll never forget it happened, because it’ll always feel just a little different.

Am I back to normal now? Well, yes. I can do anything I want—whether that’s running a marathon or taking a Rumble class. But sometimes, my body reminds me with a twinge here and some pain there that I might be doing too much. The surgery happened to make my knee feel just a tiny bit different, and it might always feel that way. But instead of being upset about this, I’ve learned to respect my body: Just like when you feel sore, if something hurts, it’s your body communicating with your brain. It’s important to listen.

Speaking of injuries, one physical therapist has seen an uptick in injuries, thanks to *this* type of class and here's how to make the most out of your workout by sidestepping these recovery mistakes.

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