The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the most commonly injured ligaments of the knee. In general, the incidence of ACL injury is higher in people who participate in high-risk sports, such as basketball, football, skiing, and soccer.
Approximately half of ACL injuries occur in combination with damage to the meniscus, articular cartilage, or other ligaments. Additionally, patients may have bruises of the bone beneath the cartilage surface. These may be seen on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan and may indicate injury to the overlying articular cartilage.
arthroscopic images of normal ACL and ACL tear
It is estimated that the majority of ACL injuries occur through non-contact mechanisms, while a smaller percent result from direct contact with another player or object.
The mechanism of injury is often associated with deceleration coupled with cutting, pivoting or sidestepping maneuvers, awkward landings or “out of control” play.
Several studies have shown that female athletes have a higher incidence of ACL injury than male athletes in certain sports. It has been proposed that this is due to differences in physical conditioning, muscular strength, and neuromuscular control. Other hypothesized causes of this gender-related difference in ACL injury rates include pelvis and lower extremity (leg) alignment, increased ligamentous laxity, and the effects of estrogen on ligament properties.
Immediately after the injury, patients usually experience pain and swelling and the knee feels unstable. Within a few hours after a new ACL injury, patients often have a large amount of knee swelling, a loss of full range of motion, pain or tenderness along the joint line and discomfort while walking.
When a patient with an ACL injury is initially seen for evaluation in the clinic, the doctor may order x-rays to look for any possible fractures. He or she may also order a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to evaluate the ACL and to check for evidence of injury to other knee ligaments, meniscus cartilage, or articular cartilage.
MRI of ACL tear
An MRI of a complete ACL tear. The ACL fibers have been disrupted and the ACL appears wavy in appearance [yellow arrow].
In addition to performing special tests for identifying meniscus tears and injury to other ligaments of the knee, the physician will often perform the Lachman’s test to see if the ACL is intact.
If the ACL is torn, the examiner will feel increased forward (upward or anterior) movement of the tibia in relation to the femur (especially when compared to the normal leg) and a soft, mushy endpoint (because the ACL is torn) when this movement ends.