Want to learn how to prevent ACL injuries, but baffled by the conflicting information already out there on the web?
Don’t panic. From knee braces to exercises to use when preventing ACL injuries, we’re going to walk you through every solution within your reach!
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What does ACL stand for?
Even if you’re well into fitness, you still may not know the answer to ‘what does ACL stand for?’, and that’s absolutely fine. You’re here to find out how to prevent ACL injuries after all, so why should you worry about that?
If you’re already clued up on the science behind ACL injuries, then feel free to read the section on preventing ACL injuries below!
If not, then it’s best to have a quick skim over this side of things as it will help you grasp how to prevent ACL injuries when you’re next out playing sports.
So, what does ACL stand for?
Anterior Cruciate Ligament. No wonder it’s shortened in everyday use! The name alone makes you want to learn how to prevent ACL injuries. Imagine explaining that to everyone who asked about your knee injury…
An ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, is a ligament within the knee joint.
The knee acts as a connection between the femur, tibia, and the patella (thigh bone, shin bone, and knee cap). There are various ligaments within the knee joint, but only two main ones in the centre; the ACL and PCL (posterior cruciate ligament).
The ACL and PCL both provide the joint with stability and strength, especially during exercise.
In particular, the ACL is known for preventing the tibia from moving forward, as well as keeping the knee joint in place and suppressing unnatural rotation.
A main problem that sometimes occurs during sports and vigorous exercise is that the ACL becomes damaged.
Damage to the ACL can happen for a number of reasons, but among the main ones are:
- Landing incorrectly after a jump
- Changing direction quickly when running
- Stopping too soon when running
- Swiveling your body in the opposite direction to your knee (while it stays in place)
- Hyperextending your leg or knee
Who is at risk?
Unfortunately, no one is completely off the radar. There have been instances where accidents happen in everyday life, albeit they are rare.
In the vast majority of cases, athletes and those who participate in sports have been the most common victims. This is probably why so many of them are looking up how to prevent ACL injuries, as they are very frequent in sports!
According to a variety of sources, women are up to 2-4 times more likely to sustain an ACL injury than men. If you want to know more about this then this article on ACL injuries among female athletes is a good source.
Regardless of gender, if you’re into sports or athletics then learning how to prevent ACL injuries could save you a lot of pain (and losing out on months of exercise).
We cover the specifics later on in the article, but for now here’s a quick-fire list of which sports and activities are the worst culprits to look out for when learning how to prevent ACL injuries:
- Track and field athletics
- Long distance running
How to Prevent ACL Injuries: The Symptoms
Now you’ve got a basic understanding of how ACL injuries come about, it’s also important to spot them when they do happen.
As alarming as it sounds, sometimes when ACL injuries aren’t easily spotted when they first happen. This is because the pain can take a while to set in, as is the case with many strain and sprain injuries.
Here’s a quick-fire list of things to look out for:
- A ‘popping’ noise or feeling in the knee joint (at the moment of injury)
- The knee buckling under the pressure of moving
- Swelling around the knee cap (either straight away or a couple of hours later)
- Pain in the knee when weight is applied to it
- Limited range of motion in the affected knee
If you experience any of these symptoms, it’s vital that you seek medical attention as soon as possible.
When it comes to how to prevent ACL injuries from becoming more severe, you must keep weight off of the suspected injury until it has been checked thoroughly.
In the meantime, you can apply ice to the site of injury, compress it, elevate the leg/knee, and/or take over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen and naproxen.
Before making a diagnosis, health professionals will ask questions about your sustained injury to make an accurate assessment.
They’ll ask how it happened (if it was during sports/exercise), whether you heard or felt a pop, compare it to your healthy knee, and may order an x-ray or MRI to eradicate the possibility of further injuries.
Most people diagnosed with an ACL injury will be advised to undergo reconstruction surgery, especially if they are young and athletic.
However, a minority of people will benefit from physio alone and may not see a need to have surgery (although in most cases it is recommended).
This is usually due to a partially torn ACL, which occurs much less frequently compared to a fully torn ACL. In this case, health professionals may advise you to wear a knee brace to prevent further injury to the partially torn ACL during any kind of physical activity.
If you think you have a partially torn ACL or need some advice on deciding to have surgery, you might find this NHS knee ligament surgery article beneficial.
Do knee braces prevent injury?
If you’re looking for the answer to ‘do knee braces prevent injury?’, then it’s likely you’ve stumbled on the conflicting information out there.
The main reason for the confusion is that there are different kinds of knee braces, that are used for different things.
To make it easier for you, here’s a quick list of the knee braces usually used by athletes to treat or prevent ACL injuries.
Functional knee brace
If an athlete has already suffered from a knee joint injury, then this is their go-to knee brace. After an ACL injury, the functional knee brace is used to reduce rotation in the knee joint, and to provide extra support in the injured area.
Do knee braces prevent injury? - with the functional knee brace, this is still up for debate. However, there are studies that claim that the functional knee brace is effective in preventing ACL injuries in those that have already sustained injury. When it comes to non-injured athletes, research is scarce.
Knee sleeves don’t necessarily count as a knee brace, but they’re worth mentioning as they’re a popular form of exercise support, and many people want to know where they stand within the question ‘do knee braces prevent injury?’
Knee sleeves are most commonly used by bodybuilders/weightlifters as a way of improving their technique during squats, and because they believe that the sleeve will protect the quads from tearing.
In reality, they have advantages AND disadvantages. They are tight-fitting, and this can cause more trouble than it’s worth in some cases.
They may protect the quads during squats for example, but the patella and the kneecap can actually rub together as a result of the tightness. This can lead to arthritis, which is something you should consider before wearing one during exercise.
Do knee braces prevent injury? - in this case, no.
Rehabilitative knee brace
The clue is in the name with this one; it’s usually prescribed to patients post-surgery. It makes it possible for the reconstructed/grafted ACL to have a limited range of movement to enable recovery.
They’re also thought to be effective in defending the injured ligaments against further injury, but this is still up for debate amongst sports scientists and health professionals.
Do knee braces prevent injury? - the rehabilitative knee brace shouldn’t be used by those who haven’t yet injured their ACL. However, patients who have been prescribed a rehabilitative knee brace are known to have used them in the past to protect them against further injury.
Unloader knee brace
This knee brace only applies if you suffer from arthritis, as it is used to place pressure and weight on stronger parts of the leg rather than on the damaged area. The knee is moved away from the damaged joint, and so the overall pain can be reduced significantly!
If you’ve had an ACL injury and have arthritis, or you’re waiting on knee replacement surgery, then this may be the best option for you.
Do knee braces prevent injury? - as unloader knee braces are used for those who suffer from arthritis, it’s natural that they shouldn’t be used to prevent ACL injuries in those who aren’t affected by it. For those who are, they may help in preventing injury, but do consult to your doctor first.
Prophylactic knee braces
Standing alone from other forms of knee brace, prophylactic knee braces were invented with un-injured athletes in mind!
However, when learning how to prevent ACL injuries, it’s important to know that (as we mentioned earlier), the evidence that suggests that knee braces are effective in preventing ACL injuries is conflicted.
For example, when athletes wearing prophylactic braces were studied alongside those who didn’t wear a knee brace, the difference between ACL injuries in each group was very small.
Do knee braces prevent injury? - when it comes to prophylactic knee braces, we’ve probably already answered this question.
However, one good thing to know is that research confirms that prophylactic knee braces have never been shown to increase injury rates, so it shouldn’t do any harm to give them a try!
NOTE: Please seek medical advice before using a knee brace, as a doctor is the only professional able to determine whether you need one (or which specific knee brace would work best for you and your injury).
How to Prevent ACL Injuries: ACL Stretches
It may sound basic, but ACL stretches can work wonders when it comes to strengthening the muscle groups that work together to support the knee joint.
If these muscles are worked regularly and grow in strength and endurance, they’re much more likely to play a part in preventing ACL injuries. It only takes a second to tear your ACL, so developing in this area could mean that the muscles take away the strain next time you make a sudden move.
To make the ACL stretches more effective, do them in your own time as well as before and after sports games or events.
ACL Stretches: Dynamic stretches
Dynamic ACL stretches are the best to utilize when it comes to learning how to prevent ACL injuries, especially for sports (which is the most common cause).
The key with these moves is to achieve a proper warm up/cool down before and after exercise to help build up strength in the knee joint. You should definitely practise these ACL stretches in your own time too! Need a good playlist to get you motivated? Check out OriGym's Best Rap Workout Songs.
Squats are fantastic for preventing ACL injuries as they strengthen and improve the stability of the knee joint, as well as the tissues surrounding it!
#1 - Start with your feet around hip width apart (slightly wider if you’re off balance)
#2 - Squat down using your hips and knees, keeping your weight on your heels and toes
#3 - Make sure your back is straight and aim to have your knees at a 90 degree angle
#4 - Press your weight into your heels and bring yourself back up, chest up and shoulders back
#5 - Repeat - keep moving! Do about 3 sets of 12-20 reps
#1 - Lead with your right leg into a lunge position, making sure your front knee stays above your ankle
#2 - Stop just before your rear knee touches the ground
#3 - Keeping your weight on your front heel, raise your body and rear leg until you are in a standing position again
#4 - Repeat with opposite leg and eventually try to get into a nice rhythm without having to pause (the most important part is mastering proper form first!)
#5 - Do 3 sets of around 20-25 reps
As lateral lunges target your glutes, hamstrings, hips, calves, and quadriceps, they are one of the most well-rounded ACL stretches that you can use. Certainly good for getting some strength around your knee joint!
#1 - Start things off in an upright position, your feet close together and hands on your hips for balance
#2 - Lean out to the side with your right leg, keeping your left leg straight as you reach the lunge position (make sure your left foot stays flat to the floor throughout)
#3 - After your right heel touches the floor, place your weight on it and then bend your right knee carefully (as far as you can comfortably go)
#4 - Do 3 sets of around 20-25 reps
#1 - Start off in an upright position, your legs about double shoulder width apart
#2 - Keeping your arms straight, abs engaged, back straight, and shoulders back, motion the dumbbell down towards your right foot, performing a half-squat simultaneously (practise this carefully before doing it with speed! Nail the basics first)
#3 - After this, motion across and above your left shoulder with the dumbbell, twisting your torso with it and pivoting your right/back foot
#4 - Practise slowly and you will get the hang of it! As you improve, you can take the dumbbell as high or as low as you wish
#5 - Do 3 sets of around 20-25 reps on each side of the body
As long as you prioritise dynamic ACL stretches (especially for sport), there's nothing wrong with adding a few static stretches into your routine when learning how to prevent ACL injuries!
Do these before your warm up and at home whenever you stop to think, and your muscles will be nice and prepared for any sudden movements.
The quadriceps, a.k.a the large muscles at the front of your thigh are very important when it comes to ACL stretches. The main reason for this is that the quads are the muscles used to extend the legs.
If you work on stretching and building up strength in the quads, then they’re much more likely to take some of the strain from sports and exercise from the ACL. If your leg extends with strength and in the correct manner, then your ACL is less likely to tear.
#1 - Get into a standing position where you have something to balance on (a sturdy chair, a wall, etc).
#2 - Raise your left calf behind you until you can hold your foot in your left hand.
#3 - Bend your knee backwards as far as is comfortably possible, and hold for 30-40 seconds. You should feel the quadricep (thigh muscle) stretching as you do so.
#4 - Repeat with the opposite leg. Do 5 sets on each side. Nice and simple!
Hamstring Stretch (Seated)
The hamstrings are located in the rear of your thighs, and are responsible for flexing your knee joint. That’s how the hamstring stretch has become one of the most important ACL stretches!
Not only is it great for those preventing ACL injuries but for many patients who have already injured their ACL, it can be very beneficial for recovery.
NOTE: Follow the advice of health professionals ONLY before completing any of these exercises, especially if you are experiencing pain after ACL surgery.
#1 - Sit with your legs together and extended straight in front of you (best done on an exercise mat)
#2 - Reach forward with your arms and waist, as far as you can comfortably go (you should really feel the stretch in the hamstrings at the back of your legs)
#3 - Keep the position for around 20-30 seconds. Do 3-5 sets, 3 if you’re new to the stretch.
Hip flexor and Hamstring Stretch
As far as ACL stretches go, one is astonishingly effective before and after exercise as it defeats most of the pain you would usually feel after working out.
If you complete it daily in your spare time, it will strengthen the hamstrings and hip flexors, meaning they will take more of the pressure that is placed on the knee joint during exercise.
#1 - Start out in a lunge position, one leg forwards and one leg behind with your hands on your hips.
#2 - Lean forwards into a stretch so that you can feel your hip flexor stretching, hold for 20-30 seconds
#3 - Now, lean back as you move the front leg backwards so that it’s straight rather than at a 90 degree angle. Push your heel into the floor and lean back as far as is comfortable (don’t overstretch, but feel the burn)
#4 - Hold the hamstring stretch for 20-30 seconds, then revert back to the lunge formation. Repeat both 3-5 times.
This is another of the nice and easy ACL stretches, all you need is a wall!
Incase you didn’t know, the calf muscle is located at the back of the lower leg and is responsible for the forward movement of the leg (it pulls the heel up when you walk, run, etc.)
#1 - Find yourself a wall and around a ruler length/30cm away from it
#2 - Keep both feet flat on the floor and move one leg behind you, bending your front knee and straightening your rear knee
#3 - Place your hands flat against the wall, and start to press into it. As you lean into the wall, you should feel your calf muscles stretching in your rear leg.
#4 - Hold this for around 20 seconds or less if it’s too uncomfortable at first, and then switch to the opposite leg.
Last but not least, this is one of the ACL stretches that you really don’t want to miss out on.
The wall squat engages a huge muscle group including every single one of the muscles that work together to extend your legs and work your thighs, as well as your glutes.
This is extremely beneficial when it comes to the ACL, as improving your overall lower body strength will make it less likely for you to have a needless accident.
#1 - Find a wall, and lean with your back flat against it. Have your feet around shoulder-width apart and 30-60cm away from the wall.
#2 - With your neck and back straight and aligned, focus your weight on your heels and slide down the wall, keeping your knees behind your toes. Stop when your knees are at about a 90 degree angle.
#3 - Hold the squat position for as long as you’re able to (aim for 60 seconds!), and remember to breath.
#4 - Revert to your original start position and take a rest, then repeat. Do around 10-12 reps each time you do the exercise.
Practicing these 5 ACL stretches alone on a regular basis could make a world of difference to you, and mean that you can avoid the nightmare of a torn ACL.
If your lower body strength and flexibility is on point then you have a much better chance of being successful in preventing ACL injuries. This isn’t to say that they can’t happen, but improving strength and agility is your best chance!
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How to Prevent ACL Injuries: ACL Rehab
If you’ve been unlucky enough to injure your ACL already, then don’t panic. We’re going to cover how to prevent ACL injuries for those who have already been through the ordeal!
The last thing you want after undergoing surgery and spending months in ACL rehab is to go through it all again…
While there’s no guarantee that this won’t happen especially when your ACL has already been damaged, it’s less likely to become a recurring injury if you spend time strengthening and preparing your body for the worst when it comes to exercise and sports.
One hobby you might want to take up if you're stuck in recovery is blogging fitness! Check out OriGym's How to Make Money Blogging Fitness article for more info.
NOTE: Never start your own ACL rehab at home without consulting a health professional first, as exercises and time scales can vary between patients.
Stability and strength are things that you can usually begin to work on during weeks 3-4 of ACL rehab (providing your doctor or surgeon has given you the all clear to do so).
Usually, the initial ACL rehab will look something like this:
- You’ll begin to put some weight on the affected knee (whilst wearing the correct knee brace)
- You’ll begin to work on your range of motion to aid stability and strength in the area (usually through low-impact exercises or stretches, such as leg raises)
- After your range of motion has improved and you’re less dependant on the crutches, you’ll usually begin some low-impact stability and strength exercises
During weeks 5-10 you will usually be instructed to lessen the use of your chosen knee brace, and receive passive mobilisation techniques from a physiotherapist.
If everything looks good at this point and your knee is responding well to the treatment, you should get the all clear to perform some low-impact closed chain exercises.
NOTE: only perform those that are recommended to you by a health professional.
If things continue to work in your favour (which they should do if you listen to your body and take things slow), then the intensity of the exercises can be gradually increased.
The 3 month mark of ACL rehab is something you’ll be glad to hear about! If you’re given the thumbs up from your doctor or physiotherapist, you’ll be able to start functional exercises.
This means that your stability, strength, agility, and coordination can be regained and you’ll be slowly but surely repairing your knee joint and the surrounding muscles.
Another 2 months of ACL rehab will take you to the 4-6 month mark, where you can really start to push for improved performance endurance as well as building on the general strength of your knee joint.
Working on proper form and accelerating, decelerating, changing direction, and incorporating plyometric exercises will give you a great advantage when it comes to learning how to prevent ACL injuries in the future.
Focus on OriGym’s four focal points when it comes to this section of ACL rehab; balance, endurance, strength, and agility and you’ll be back on the field in no time.
Before you go!
You made it to the end of our article! We hope we’ve left you knowing exactly how to prevent ACL injuries when you’re out on the field or going about your daily life.
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