How to Identify ACL Injuries

by Jsantos, November 30, 2017

How to Identify ACL Injuries

If you’re an athlete, you’ve probably had your fair share of knee injuries. From collisions, sprains and falls, there are plenty of ways to injure yourself while playing a game. But for other people who are less active, a knee or ACL injury can happen by simply stressing the body or holding the knee in awkward positions.

Whether you’re a seasoned athlete or a fairly sedentary person, knee pain can be incredibly discouraging. If you’re unsure if it’s just a small injury or if you’ve managed to really injure your ACL, you’ll need to see an orthopedic doctor if pain lasts more than a few days or if your knee is swelling.

How a doctor diagnoses knee injuries

When you visit an orthopedic doctor for a suspected ACL injury, the first thing your doctor will do is take your medical history. Asking questions about activity levels, past injuries or any outstanding conditions will help your doctor determine your risks for potential ligament or tendon tears.

Once your medical history is established, your orthopedic doctor will use:

  • Pivot tests. Holding the patient’s foot, a doctor will flex the patient’s hip (on the injured side) out to a 30 degree angle. Placing the doctor’s thumb where the kneecap and ACL are located, the doctor will be able to tell if there is instability in the knee. More tests, like the Lachman test, will be performed to see if the ACL is injured.
  • Lachman tests. In this test, a doctor will lift a patient’s tibia (the bone below the knee) towards the sky. With the doctor’s thumb pressed in the vicinity of the ACL, he or she will be able to tell if it reacts properly to the movement. If the ACL doesn’t react properly, imaging will be requested to get an accurate image of the ligament.
  • X-ray imaging. If the knee has swollen or is too painful to do physical tests, a doctor will usually refer a patient to the radiology department for an X-ray of the knee. If the X-ray is inconclusive or can’t get a clear picture of the ACL, MRI or CT scans may be used.

In most cases, these diagnostic methods work. For patients with severe swelling or who have had previous knee injuries or replacements, imaging and physical exams might not tell a doctor exactly what is wrong. In these extreme cases, an arthroscopy might be needed to get a good view of the knee and ACL. This is essentially a small surgery, where doctors make small incisions around the knee so they can access the structures to see how damaged they are.

Seek treatment for a potential ACL injury 

If you’ve recently injured your knee, the best thing you can do is seek medical care early. For very painful or very swollen knees, you should make an appointment with an orthopedic professional (or seek a referral) as soon as possible. Early diagnosis of an ACL injury can save you a lot of pain and time.

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