How Long Does It Take to Return From ACL Surgery?

If you’re a fan of the New England Patriots (or just a sports-medicine physician and surgeon), you’ve probably been watching the comeback of receiver Wes Welker from ACL reconstructive surgery very closely. Welker tore his ACL in January of this year, and the latest news suggests he’s aiming to start Game 1 of the NFL season on September 12. He’s already participated in contact drills with the Patriots.

Welker’s comeback has raised some eyebrows because he’s pushing conventional time limits for his return to the sport. Most people who undergo reconstructive knee surgery can return to athletic activities at six to eight months, but they’re usually not back to their previous level of competition until one year. Keep in mind—we’re not talking about tennis with a friend here; this is the NFL.

Professional athletes are like a Petri dish for the rest of us. They take the human body to the limits of what it can do, and so we learn from them. Ultimately, we often want to emulate them, which is why it’s important to put Welker’s comeback into perspective.

One of my patients, a Georgia Tech football player, is coming back from ACL reconstruction, and he’s complaining of soreness. We stress to kids that the average pro football player takes 54 weeks to return to play after an ACL injury. When a patient tries to return earlier, they often experience pain and swelling, and are at some level of increased risk of re-injury.

Here are some warning signs we look for that could indicate an athlete is pushing the limits on their comeback:

1. Pain and soreness in the front part of the knee (in the patella tendon area)

2. Swelling of the knee

3. A general feeling of fatigue

If a patient experiences one or more of these symptoms, they need to back off from their training, and concentrate on icing, riding the exercise bike, and resting. They can always resume training when they’re feeling better. If you’ve had ACL surgery and your “comeback” to the activities you enjoy isn’t going as expected, call us at Emory Sports Medicine. We can provide a safe, solid game plan for your return to action.

Meanwhile, if Welker succeeds and contributes another valuable season to Tom Brady and the Patriots, his determination should be praised; however, that doesn’t mean his quick comeback should be emulated.

About John Xerogeanes, MD:

Dr. Xerogeanes, or Dr. “X”, is chief of Sports Medicine at the Emory Orthopaedic & Spine Center. He is also head orthopaedist and team physician for Georgia Tech, Emory University, and Agnes Scott College. As a member of a number of professional societies and organizations, including the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, and the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, Dr. Xerogeanes has contributed to many textbooks and has received numerous research awards. Dr. Xerogeanes’ work has been featured on CNN, ESPN and network television news.

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  • HW

    I have torn my ACL playing flag football and wish to get it repaired because of knee instability and my desire to resume working out so that I can stay in shape as I get older.

    My concern is the pain. I have no soreness or pain in the knee anymore, just instability. I don’t want to have the surgery and get the stability with the pain or soreness for the rest of my life.

    Is that the tradeoff!!??

    • Moderator

      Personally identifiable information removed for patient privacy.

    • Dr. Xerogeanes

      Very sorry to hear about your injury. Unfortunately, while we can’t discuss the details of your medical history or condition within the context of this blog, we would be happy to discuss it with you in person or over the phone. You can use this phone number to schedule an appointment with us: 404 778-3350 or if you’d like to get advice from a nurse, you can call 404 778-7777. Hope to see you soon!