Common Ways Athletes Injure their ACL - Prevention and Treatment

September 19th, 2019

An ACL injury is a very serious injury that requires immediate attention. This injury typically occurs in athletes who change direction quickly, so those involved in sports such as soccer, basketball, and football often suffer from ACL injuries. 

It’s likely that you’ve heard a lot about this common injury, but it’s important to stay informed as an athlete. Understanding how ACL injuries occur, as well as how they are treated and prevented can make all the difference the next time you head to practice or a game.

Keep reading to learn more.

What Is an ACL?

Your anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of four ligaments that stabilize the knee joint. The other three are called the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), medial collateral ligament (MCL), and lateral collateral ligament (LCL). The ACL and PCL run diagonally across the middle of the knee, crossing one another to keep the bones of the leg in place. The MCL and LCL protect the inner side and outer side of the knee, respectively.

The ACL, in particular, provides rotational stability during activities such as running, jumping, and pivoting. This is why many athletes who participate in basketball, football, track events, tennis, and other sports have a higher chance of developing a tear.

What Happens During an ACL Tear?

In other words, how does the ACL tear? This injury is normally considered an acute injury, meaning it most often occurs suddenly rather than over time. Abrupt movements, such as rapidly changing direction or stopping, can cause extensive pressure that leads to a tear. Landing incorrectly after a jump or colliding with a teammate may also injure the area. ACL tears can occur alongside other knee injuries, as well.

When a tear is diagnosed, it is graded on a scale based on severity.

  • Grade One Sprains represent mild damage to the ligament, which is slightly stretched but not yet torn.

  • Grade Two Sprains are stretched ligaments also known as partial tears.

  • Grade Three Sprains describe the complete splitting of the ligament when the knee joint is very unstable. 

What are Common Causes of an ACL Injury?

While an ACL injury can occur from various different activities and movements, whether you’re an athlete or not, there are several movements that are likely causes of ACL injuries.

  • Quick Movements: In sports such as soccer, basketball, and football, athletes are constantly making high-velocity pivots and rotation of lower extremities. These movements affect the function and stability of the ACL. 

  • Player to Player Contact: ACL injuries can also occur as contact is made from one person to another, especially during rigorous sports activity. For example, in soccer, a tackle from the side can cause the knees to knock together causing the injury.

  • Landing Awkwardly: Various sports require athletes to jump, whether it’s to head a ball in soccer, or to catch a pass in football. As athletes come down from their jump, they sometimes land awkwardly and their ACL cannot support 

Although contact with another player, such as a tackle in football or soccer, can lead to the injury, it more commonly occurs without contact.  A non-contact injury occurs when the foot gets planted or stuck in the ground and the knee twists awkwardly.

What are ACL Injury Symptoms?

It’s crucial to understand the symptoms of an ACL injury because it can get worse if left untreated. Most experience some or all of the following effects:

  • A “popping” noise at the site of the injury

  • Tenderness around the joint

  • Pain with swelling

  • Discomfort or inability to walk

  • Decreased range of motion

What are the Top Treatments for ACL Injuries?

Unfortunately, a torn ACL will not heal without surgery. Only patients who are elderly and/or do not intend to return to a highly active lifestyle have the best chance of responding well to non-operative care. These treatments include physical therapy exercises and knee bracing. 


For athletes, ACL reconstruction surgery is usually the ideal treatment choice. Rebuilding the ligament involves replacing the torn part with a tissue graft, obtained from the patient’s own body or a cadaver. The procedure is performed with the use of an arthroscope to guide the surgeon’s actions. Arthroscopic surgery is less invasive than traditional surgery methods and results in less pain after the procedure.

The idea of undergoing surgery, especially for the first time, may frighten patients. However, receiving surgical care from highly qualified and experienced physicians can uphold the long-term health of your knee joints.

How can I prevent an ACL Injury?

While an ACL injury can’t be fully prevented if you’re active, but you can take steps to attempt to prevent the injury. Below are our specialists’ top pieces of advice.

  • Cross Train

Mix up the exercises you do to avoid putting excessive strain on your knees and strengthen additional supportive muscles. For example, if you are a runner, add some upper-body or low-impact exercises as well as targeted strengthening techniques to your routine. 

  • Stretch Before and After Exercise

Warming up and cooling down are essential for avoiding injuries like strains and sprains. Take your time while stretching and doing light exercises, and your body will thank you later.

  • Take Days Off

Rigorous and jam-packed workout schedules increase your risk of injury. Designate at least one to two days per week as rest days.

At Rothman Orthopaedic Institute, our physicians believe education is the first step to preventing pain and injury. If you’re dealing with an ACL injury, our Sports Medicine team is available to help you navigate your options. For additional knee injury prevention tips, ask a Rothman Orthopaedic Institute Sports Medicine specialist. If you need treatment, please visit us here or contact us at 1-800-321-9999.

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