ACL recovery is an extremely physical process that involves months of rehabilitation. But that’s not all there is to it. Though it’s a long road to recovery, it’s possible to have a great outlook with the right tools to help you bounce back after ACL surgery.
As you’re well aware, the main goals of ACL rehabilitation are to:
Regain normal stability of the knee joint
Regain strength of the thigh muscles
Maintain flexibility of the thigh muscles
But there are plenty of other factors to consider when it comes to rehabilitating a newly repaired ACL. You may not know this, but sleep, nutrition, hydration, and behavioral health, should all be entered into the recovery plan.
Let’s explore these factors more closely to learn the things you should be doing during recovery from an ACL tear.
1.Get plenty of sleep after ACL surgery.
The biggest sleep-related concern with a repaired ACL is a lack of sleep. In this wheelhouse, goals for recovery include quality sleep, decreasing pain levels, and limiting heavy pain medication use.
Think about it – surgery (and recovery) is painful. Afterward, you may have problems falling asleep and/or getting less sleep than usual. This becomes problematic because the less you sleep, the more sensitive you are to that pain. Aside from obvious fatigue, this can lead to increased use of opioids prescribed after surgery.
There are a couple of ways to combat sleep deprivation. Sleep aids can be effective in decreasing the amount of time it takes to fall asleep at night as well as increasing time asleep. Unfortunately, a medicated sleep aid does not have the same health benefits as normal sleep does. So even though it may help you fall (and stay) asleep at night after an ACL repair, it does not benefit you as much as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy.
Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) is a form of therapy that focuses on changing thoughts and behaviors to manage pain. And it’s pretty effective in doing so – which means less pain and more sleep.
People notice these effects after trying CBT:
Improved sleep efficiency
Fewer interruptions during the night
Quicker to fall asleep
Improved quality of sleep
Case in point: making sleep a priority during your ACL rehabilitation will foster a quick recovery. If you’re struggling to get a good night’s sleep, talk to your medical team about options that may help.
2. Prioritize nutrition and good eating habits during ACL recovery.
With an ACL injury or surgery, you’re bound to have a good deal of inflammation/swelling and pain. Fortunately, nutrition is a great way to combat inflammation from the inside out.
There are a handful of anti-inflammatory foods and supplements that can be beneficial to the recovery process. But when it comes to nutrition, it’s important to acknowledge that these needs are going to vary case-by-case.
What do we mean by this? Let’s take a look.
Omega-3 fats are effective in reducing muscle loss and preventing inflammation. You can find them in the following foods:
Nuts or nut butter
Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)
Omega-3 fish oil
Proteins will help with muscle growth and recovery as you heal from ACL surgery. Add nuts and seeds, beans, cod, tuna, chicken, and steak to meet your needs in this category – they’ll provide you with the protein you need and help combat inflammation along the way.
Fiber is beneficial in reducing constipation, a common side effect of the pain medication that comes with an ACL repair. This can be found in prunes or prune juice, whole grains, and various fruits and vegetables.
Vitamins and minerals can be used either supplementally or within your diet. The following can provide a wide range of benefits during the recovery process of an ACL tear:
Vitamin A aids in cell growth and development.
Incorporate this into your diet with sweet potatoes, spinach, and carrots.
Vitamin C can help with wound healing and tissue repair.
You can find it in broccoli and citrus fruits.
Vitamin D is a big player in bone health and immune function.
Look for salmon, tuna, and mushrooms to add Vitamin D to your diet.
Calcium is a key mineral for skeletal structure and function – aka, keeping your bones in good shape.
Broccoli, seeds, and dairy products (of course) will provide your diet with a calcium boost.
Copper comes into play with red blood cell formation, immune function, and bone health.
It is found in nuts and seeds, leafy greens, and lobster.
Zinc is effective in aiding wound healing, protein synthesis, and immune function.
Between meat, shellfish, and legumes, there’s plenty of ways to add zinc to your diet.
There are a few other supplemental nutrients that benefit the recovery process. Tart cherry juice and fish oil can fight inflammation, and casein proteins prevent muscle breakdown. Branch chain amino acids (also known as BCAAs) are useful to strengthen muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Collagen helps boost muscle mass and relieve joint pain.
While these are great additions to your diet, there are also things you should avoid. Not to state the obvious, but nutrient deficiencies won’t get you very far when it comes to recovery. Omega-6 fats, such as vegetable oil and saturated fats, actually increase inflammation and should be avoided. Added sugar in the diet is a no-go too, as it will also increase inflammation.
3. Staying hydrated helps you to recover after ACL surgery.
To keep it short and sweet, hydration is incredibly important to ACL recovery.
Athletes typically maintain good hydration levels because they are so active – and an ACL injury should not be any different. In fact, the best practice is to drink as much water as you normally would.
The body is made up of 60% water. That’s more than half of our body composition, and it cannot afford to be compromised when it comes to ACL recovery. Water is effective in flushing toxins out of our system and aiding in the anti-inflammatory response.
Try to drink between ¾ gallon to a full gallon of water per day. If water is too bland for you, try flavored water – but be careful of those added sugars. Feel free to incorporate fruits into your diet since they can offer little spurts of hydration and provide a break in the routine.
4. Don’t neglect your mental health during your ACL recovery.
An ACL tear can be particularly devastating to an athlete. Most athletes look at an ACL injury as the end all be all – the season-ending knee injury that you never fully come back from. However, with a little bit of encouragement, recovery outcomes are positive.
So, what kind of problems may arise during ACL rehabilitation?
Most commonly, athletes struggle with hesitation and a lack of confidence in the recovery process. This is a self-limiting behavior to avoid reinjury. You may be exhibiting low confidence behaviors if you find yourself:
Decreasing the intensity of your activity
Relying on a knee brace
Perceiving your knee as unstable
Coming to terms with an ACL injury is something athletes tend to struggle with as well. As said before, they see it as season-ending. Some even begin to assume that their entire athletic career is over. Oftentimes, this negative thought process leads to questions about their future athletic career.
Expectations and assumptions about the rehabilitation and recovery process are other limiting factors to recovery from ACL surgery. Admittedly, long physical therapy sessions can be frustrating and appear to be never-ending. It can feel like you’re going nowhere fast, and that’s discouraging. Along with that, the inability to complete basic tasks (especially right after surgery) can be a big knock to the ego.
But rest assured, the most important thing to know when rehabilitating an ACL injury is that, even though it may take a while, the outcomes are good. Here are a few tips that are proven to help your mindset as you recover from an ACL injury:
You need a strong support system. Surrounding yourself with people who cheer you on and help cope with recovery can increase your confidence in the process.
Self-efficacy is the belief that you can perform a task successfully. Believing in yourself to attain your goals plays a major role in positive rehabilitation outcomes.
Continue to participate in team activities. Remaining with your team while you recover is a great way to motivate yourself to return. Do your rehab exercises at practice and participate in team activities. Seeing your teammates on the field can encourage you to want to be back out there with them.
Setting short-term goals is a great way to make the recovery process fly by. Long-term goals can be frustrating, but individualized short-term goals are motivating when it comes to returning to play.
Celebrate your goals. Every small win is a win, and each one should be celebrated. Getting excited about how far you’ve come will play a huge role in the confidence department.
How to Choose the Best Physical Therapist after ACL surgery
Your physical therapist plays a significant part in your ACL injury treatment. To create the best chance of recovery, he or she should be a good fit as a provider. Look for a physical therapist who:
Specializes in ACL rehabilitation.
Understands your sport and position – this will help you set those short-term goals.
Works in an environment that works for you. Athletes benefit from settings that make them feel like an athlete. Adequate equipment and the state of the facility are key factors in the recovery environment.
At Myokinetix, we excel in treatments for ACL injuries, meniscal tears, and Achilles ruptures, just to name a few. We pride ourselves on getting athletes through the rehabilitation process and back on the field, and ACL rehabilitation is no different. Check out why Myokinetix is right for you and give us a call to learn more about our ACL programs.