How I Recovered After Tearing My ACL Five Times—Without Surgery
It was the first quarter of the basketball game. I was dribbling up the court on a fast break when a defender smashed into my side and propelled my body out of bounds. My weight fell on my right leg and that's when I heard that unforgettable, "POP!" It felt like everything inside my knee had shattered, like glass, and the sharp, throbbing pain pounded, like a heartbeat.
At the time I was only 14 and remember thinking, "What the heck just happened?" The ball was inbounded to me, and when I went to pull a crossover, I almost fell. My knee swayed side-to-side, like a pendulum for the rest of the game. One moment had robbed me of stability.
Unfortunately, it wouldn't be the last time that I would experience that feeling of vulnerability: I've torn my ACL a total of five times; four times on the right and once on the left.
They call it an athlete's nightmare. Tearing the Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)—one of the four main ligaments in the knee—is a common injury, especially for those who play sports like basketball, football, skiing, and soccer with non-contact sudden pivoting.
"The ACL is one of the most important ligaments in the knee that is responsible for stability," explains orthopedic surgeon Leon Popovitz, M.D., of New York Bone and Joint Specialists.
"In particular, it prevents forward instability of the tibia (the bottom knee bone) in relation to the femur (the top knee bone). It also helps prevent rotational instability," he explains. "Typically, a person that tears their ACL may feel a pop, a pain that is deep in the knee and, often, sudden swelling. Bearing weight is difficult at first and the knee feels unstable." (Check, check, and check.)
And ICYMI, women are more likely to tear their ACL, due to various factors that include the biomechanics of landing due to differences in anatomy, muscle strength, and hormonal influences, says Dr. Popovitz.
My Failed ACL Surgeries
As a young athlete, going under the knife was the answer to continue competing. Dr. Popovitz explains that an ACL tear will never "heal" by itself and for younger, more active, patients surgery is almost always the best option to restore stability—and prevent cartilage damage that can cause severe pain, and potential premature degeneration of the joint and eventual arthritis.
For the first procedure, a piece of my hamstring was used as a graft to repair the torn ACL. It didn't work. Neither did the next one. Or the Achilles cadaver that followed. Each tear was more disheartening than the last. (Related: My Injury Doesn't Define How Fit I Am)
Finally, the fourth time I was starting from square one, I decided that since I was done playing basketball competitively (which definitely takes a toll on your body), I wasn't going to go under the knife and put my body through any more trauma. I decided to rehabilitate my body a more natural way, and—as an added bonus—I'd never have to worry about re-tearing it, ever again.
In September, I experienced my fifth tear (in the opposite leg) and I treated the injury with the same natural, non-invasive process, without going under the knife. The result? I actually feel stronger than ever.
How I Rehabbed My ACL Without Surgery
There are three grades of ACL injuries: Grade I (a sprain that can cause the ligament to stretch, like taffy, but still remain intact), Grade II (a partial tear in which some of the fibers within the ligament are torn) and Grade III (when the fibers are completely torn).
For Grade I and Grade II ACL injuries, after the initial period of rest, ice and elevation, physical therapy might be all that you need to recover. For Grade III, surgery is often the best course of treatment. (For older patients, who don't put as much strain on their knees, treating with physical therapy, wearing a brace, and modifying certain activities is probably the best way to go, says Dr. Popovitz.)
Luckily, I was able to go the non-surgical route for my fifth tear. The first step was to decrease the inflammation and regain full range of motion; this was essential to reducing my pain.
Acupuncture treatments were the key to this. Before trying it, I have to admit, I was a skeptic. Luckily I've had the help of Kat MacKenzie—the owner of Acupuncture Nirvana, in Glens Falls, New York—who is a master manipulator of fine needles. (Related: Why You Should Try Acupuncture—Even If You Don't Need Pain Relief)
"Acupuncture is known to promote blood flow, reduce inflammation, stimulate endorphins (thus decreasing pain) and it inherently moves stuck tissue, allowing the body to heal better naturally," says MacKenzie. "In essence, it gives the body a little shove to heal faster."
Even though my knees will never fully heal (the ACL can't magically reappear, after all), this method of holistic healing has been everything I didn't know I needed. "It improves circulation in the joint and improves range of motion," says MacKenzie. "Acupuncture can improve stability in the sense of functioning better [as well]."
Her methods also came to the rescue of my right knee (the one that had all of the surgery) by breaking down scar tissue. "Whenever the body has surgery, scar tissue is created, and from an acupuncture perspective, it is hard on the body," explains MacKenzie. "Thus we try to help patients avoid it when possible. But we also recognize that if the injury is severe enough, surgery has to occur, and then we try to help the knee joint recover faster. Acupuncture also works preventatively as well by improving the functionality of the joint." (Related: How I Recovered from Two ACL Tears and Came Back Stronger Than Ever)
The second step was physical therapy. The importance of strengthening the muscles around my knees (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and even my glutes) can't be stressed enough. This was the hardest part because, like a baby, I had to start with a crawl. I began with the fundamentals, which consisted of exercises like tightening my quad (without lifting my leg), relaxing it, and then repeating for 15 repetitions. As time passed, I added the leg lift. Then I would lift up and move the whole leg to the right and left. It doesn't seem like much, but this was the starting line.
After a few weeks, resistance bands became my besties. Every time I was able to add a new element to my strength training regimen, I felt invigorated. After about three months I started to incorporate body-weight squats, lunges; moves that made me feel I was getting back to my old self. (Related: The Best Resistance Band Exercises for Strong Legs and Glutes)
Finally, after about four to five months, I was able to hop back on a treadmill and go for a run. Best. Feeling. Ever. If you ever experience this, you will feel like recreating Rocky's run up the stairs so have the "Gonna Fly Now" queued on your playlist. (Warning: Punching the air is a side-effect.)
Even though strength training was integral, gaining my flexibility back was just as necessary. I always made sure to stretch before and after each session. And every night concluded with strapping the heating pad to my knee.
The Mental Component of Recovery
Thinking positive was crucial for me because there have been days when I wanted to give up. "Don't let an injury discourage you—but you can do this!" MacKenzie encourages. "A lot of patients feel like an ACL tear really prevents them from living well. I've had my own medial meniscus tear while in acupuncture school, and I remember climbing up and down the NYC subway steps on crutches to get to my day job on Wall Street, and then climbing up and down the subway steps to get to my acupuncture classes at night. It was exhausting, but I just kept going. I remember that difficulty when I treat patients and I try to encourage them."
There is no end for my PT, I will never be finished. To stay mobile and agile, I—like anyone who wants to feel good and remain fit—have to continue this forever. But taking care of my body is a commitment I'm more than willing to make. (Related: How to Stay Fit (and Sane) When You're Injured)
Choosing to live without my ACL's isn't a piece of gluten-free cake (and not the protocol for most people), but it has definitely been the best decision for me, personally. I avoided the operating room, the massive, black and incredibly itchy post-surgical immobilizer complete with crutches, hospital fees and—most importantly—I was still able to take care of my soon-to-be two-year-old twin boys.
Sure, it's been full of challenging ups and downs, but with some hard work, holistic healing methods, heating pads, and a hint of hope, I'm actually ACL-less and happy.
Plus, I can predict precipitation better than most meteorologists. Not too shabby, right?