ACLs Don’t Just Grow on Knees: What Tearing an ACL is Really Like – Part One

Posted By: The Ski Channel on February 17, 2013 4:33 pm

Lindsey Vonn recently tore her ACL. So did I. Here is the first installment in a series depicting my experience with this injury.  I will detail the initial tear, through physical therapy, surgery, and the nine-month recovery period, beginning with that unfortunate day on the slopes. 

I’ve been skiing since I was three, and aside from a few humiliating spills- face plants, powder flops, rolling down Mammoth’s Cornice in a bikini (that one might require more explanation), I’ve only ever hurt my pride… until a few weeks ago, when my ACL ripped in half. I like to use the words, “ripped in half” because it garners more sympathy. If you’re a skier or boarder, or associate with us at all, you’re probably familiar with this injury.  It’s not uncommon among high impact sports.  You’ve seen soccer players topple over in pain, and stud football players cry out as their knees buckle under them.  It’s hard to watch, and it’s sad because as soon as that pop sounds, and the ligament tears, it’s over for the rest of the season. ACL diagram

I’m an alpine skier on the UCLA Snowteam. I was beyond disappointed to hear that my slalom racing this season would require a Wii Sports remote.  

I tore my ACL on a ski jump. You just can’t expect to land a 1080 every time.  All right, that was a lie. It was a small jump, and I didn’t attempt any tricks.  I rarely (never) do jumps, but I decided to give them a try for some regrettable reason. I went off a couple successfully, gained some ungrounded confidence, and started hitting them with more speed and less caution.  That’s when I hit the humdinger, yes the humdinger.  I landed off-balance, caught an inside edge, and slid sideways as my knee gave out.  Familiar anyone?

It wasn’t the pain that bothered me; it was the sinking feeling that this was a real injury. And by real I mean it required more than the standard Band-Aid/kiss-it-better treatment.  Most ACL tear-ers describe hearing a pop. I never heard the pop. I did, however, feel numbness at the bottom of my kneecap, and a very unsettling inability to move my knee.  After a minute of flailing on the ground in a panicked attempt at assessing my condition, the numbness dissipated and I regained movement. I called out, “I might be in need of assistance” which in retrospect, was moronic.  A string of profanities would have been more appropriate. 

Torn ACL

My friend collected my poles and skis, and I managed to stand up, and walk to the side.  I carefully clicked back into my skis, and skied down to the lift.  The pain was bearable, but the instability was troubling. My friends decided to hit up a double black diamond, which I considered momentarily, before realizing I was insane. We rode the lift up, and then parted ways as I traversed down to the lodge, finally accepting defeat.

I sat on the Ski Patrol cot for a while, contemplating if I should go to ER.  I eventually decided to get it looked at, not because of excessive pain, which I assigned a two out of ten, but because of looseness, swelling, and a general sense that my right knee wasn’t… right.  I hobbled into the waiting room in full ski attire.  Everyone else was decked in full gear as well. I made some quip about us all getting hurt on the slopes, which met a surprisingly warm reception.  The only place you’ll find such chipper ER patients is ski towns. Some people can laugh at their injuries years after recovery. Skiers and boarders tend to laugh as they roll down the slopes in pain.

In triage, I shamelessly eavesdropped on everyone around me. I overheard a man say, “I ran into a tree,” followed by his own laughter. As my gurney was rolled over to x-ray, a man with a bandaged shoulder in ski apparel exchanged smiles with me, silently acknowledging our ironic amusement.

The doctor entered, evaluated my knee, felt around, asked what hurt, and then formed a sympathetic half-frown as he said, “I’m very concerned about your ACL. I think you tore it, probably all the way.” His voice suggested that he estimated my age to about thirteen, as he said, “You need to go to your bone doctor. You didn’t know you had one, but you do. He’s called an orthopedist.”  He explained the ligaments in the knee (or lack thereof), and then asked, “Any other questions?” to which I replied, “I might faint.” He smiled and said calmly, “I know. I’ve been watching you turn pale.”

The next installment will describe the MRI, my appointment with “the bone doctor,” and physical therapy leading up to surgery. 


ACL Diagram courtesy of Skier in snow courtesy of maga therapy.