What can I expect after my anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery?

Knowing what to expect can help make your road to recovery after ACL surgery as smooth as possible. 

How long will it take to recover?

You will stay briefly in the recovery room after surgery until you are alert, breathing effectively, and your vital signs are stable. You will probably go home the same day of surgery. 

You may have a sore throat if a tube was placed in your windpipe during surgery. This is usually temporary, but tell your care team if you are uncomfortable. 

Recovery after surgery is a gradual process. You will wear a knee brace and use crutches for several weeks after your surgery. Your doctor will also refer you to an exercise rehabilitation program or physical therapy to help you recover. This includes exercises to restore range of motion and build knee strength. 

Graft healing can take many weeks. Recovery time varies depending on the specific procedure, type of anesthesia, your general health, age, and other factors.  Full recovery takes at least four to six months, but may take as long as a year. It generally takes at least six months before you can return to sports.

Will I feel pain?

Pain control is important for healing and a smooth recovery. There will be discomfort after your surgery. Your doctor will treat your pain so you are comfortable and can get the rest you need. Call your doctor if your pain gets worse or changes in any way because it may be a sign of a complication.

When should I call my doctor?

It is important to keep your follow-up appointments after ACL surgery. Contact your doctor for questions and concerns between appointments. Call your doctor right away or seek immediate medical care if you have:

  • Bleeding
  • Breathing problems, such as shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, labored breathing, or wheezing
  • Calf pain, or swelling of the calf, ankle or foot
  • Change in alertness, such as passing out, unresponsiveness, or confusion
  • Fever. A low-grade fever (lower than 101 degrees Fahrenheit) is common for a couple of days after surgery and not necessarily a sign of a surgical infection. Follow your doctor's specific instructions about when to call for a fever.
  • Inability to urinate, pass gas, or have a bowel movement
  • Numbness or tingling in the affected extremity 
  • Pain that is not controlled by your pain medication or pain that gets worse or changes
  • Unexpected drainage, pus, redness or swelling of your incision or knee joint

How might ACL surgery affect my everyday life?

ACL surgery may cure your condition or significantly reduce your symptoms so you can lead an active, normal life. Successful ACL surgery restores knee strength and stability. Some people feel more comfortable returning to work or sports after recovery with the security of a knee brace for extra support.