Obviously it is necessary to work with doctors and physical therapists as you recover, but unless they have been through ACL reconstruction themselves, they won’t know exactly what to tell you to have you recover in the best possible way. I’ve had this surgery 3 times, so at this point I am somewhat of an expert, and feel qualified to give advice. This will be a guide on how to make your recovery as efficient and pain free as possible (figuratively of course. There will be lots of literal pain).
The picture above shows me when I was 13 after my first ACL reconstruction. I wish I had been told these things back then, because either due to the fact that I was small, or because I didn't have these tips, it took twice as long as normal for my doctor to clear me for activity. It usually takes around 6 months to fully recover from ACL surgery, so hopefully my instructions will help those 6 months fly by.
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Step 1: Prepare Yourself Mentally for the Pain That Is to Come.
You’ve already had the painful experience of tearing your ACL, but that’s only the beginning. It’s a painful surgery, which you’ll wake up from feeling like you’ve been hit by a bus, and the physical therapy aspect is just as painful in its own right. If you’re prepared, you’ll take it like a champ.
The photo above shows me directly after my most recent knee surgery. I did indeed feel like I got hit by a bus, but as this was my third go around, I was prepared for the pain and you can almost see a smile on my face.
Step 2: ALWAYS Eat Before You Take Your Pain Meds, and Eat As Soon As You Wake Up.
You may not feel like eating much the first few days after surgery, but get at least something in your stomach, even if it’s just a couple of crackers. When you don’t throw up you’ll thank me.
Step 3: Ask Your Doctors for More Pain Meds If You Need Them
Like I’ve said this won’t be fun, so if you run out of meds, ask for more. Don’t be afraid that the docs will think you’re a druggy. They won’t, they know it’s a monster surgery.
This is a photo of my knee at my one week post-op check up. I asked for more meds during this visit and my doctor was happy to oblige.
Step 4: Ask Your Doctor for a Handicap Parking Pass.
A handicap parking pass is the only positive that comes from surgery, and as you’re basically learning how to walk again, it’ll be nice to start with shorter distances.
Even after I moved on from crutches to my cane, walking more than minimal distances was exhausting. I was extremely grateful to have a handicap pass.
Step 5: Decorate Your Crutches.
You’ll probably be on crutches for a couple weeks (maybe more if you need to use them before your surgery as well). It gives humor to a less than ideal situation, and is a great conversation starter. My most recent surgery was during the Christmas season, so I decorated mine with lights and ribbon. It made me less sad about having to use crutches, and other people got a good kick out of it.
Step 6: Use Your Knee Brace As a Phone Holster.
If you're given a massive ankle to hip knee brace, it's a convenient place to store your phone. I found this handy, and you may not think of it, so you're welcome.
You can see in the photo I just slid my phone (I used deodorant for the example so I could take the picture on my phone) into the outside top strap of my brace. It was super secure and nice because I didn't wear pants that had pockets for a while post surgery.
Step 7: Become Friends With Your Physical Therapist.
Physical therapy is torture. It’s easy to resent your PT, but they’re just trying to help you. If you become friends with them and have good conversations while doing your therapy, it’ll make it somewhat less terrible.
Step 8: Do Your at Home Physical Therapy Exercises Religiously.
They hurt incredibly badly, and you won’t want to do them, but do them anyway. If you don’t, recovery will take a lot longer, your physical therapist will nag you, and you’ll be annoyed with yourself for making the lengthy recovery take even longer. The pain you experience will help prevent pain in the future.
Step 9: Entertain Yourself While Doing Your at Home Exercises.
Most of the physical therapy exercises are pretty simple tasks that don’t take much brain power. If you have a good book, tv show, or just social media/ games on your phone, it’ll help take your mind off the pain.
Step 10: Ice Your Knee Often.
I always hated icing my knee because I just don’t particularly enjoy being cold (who does?), but it’s important to force yourself to. You always should after you do your physical therapy exercises, but also ice at regular intervals during the day, especially if you’ve been walking around. Keeping swelling down will make your physical therapy less painful and you’ll improve faster.
Step 11: Take It Slow When Your Surgeon and Physical Therapist Clear You to Do More Activities.
If you’ve torn your ACL, it’s likely that you are an active, athletic person, and being below your standard of physical ability will be frustrating, but don’t push yourself too hard. It’s a difficult line to tread, pushing yourself enough to aid recovery, but not too much as to injure yourself further. It seems obvious, but for someone like me who is admittedly somewhat of an exercise addict it can be hard to accept that you won’t be at the same athletic ability as you were before, but that would be a medical marvel, so don’t beat yourself up if it takes a while to get back to where you were, because it will.
This picture is of me and some friends on a hiking trip right after I tore my ACL. It was incredibly difficult to even do the easiest hikes. Do as I say, not as I do.