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Returning to Sports After ACL Surgery

Returning to unrestricted activity following anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) surgery is a complex decision made between patients and surgeons. Orthopedic surgeons take many factors into account before considering it safe for patients to return to sports. Understanding what you're up against can help optimize the outcome.

ACL injuries and sports

Sports are demanding physical activities. They require muscular strength, endurance, and stability. Your muscles, joints, tendons, and ligaments support movement and must function optimally for you to participate and excel. 

The ACL is a vital ligament that stabilizes the knee. ACL injuries are common in sports, including:

ACL surgery to restore knee function

When an ACL injury occurs, surgery to reconstruct the ligament is the gold standard of treatment. Most patients who undergo ACL surgery are successfully able to resume sports activity. 


Over 90% of patients have normal or near-normal knee function following recovery from ACL surgery. That said, it's important to understand that each patient is unique and the experience of returning to sports after surgery to reconstruct the ACL varies. 


Board-certified orthopedic surgeon Dr. Matthew Pifer and our Santa Barbara, California team use the highest standards in orthopedic medicine to determine when it’s safe for you to return to sports after ACL surgery.

Setting realistic expectations

Patients often have a strong desire to return to sports as soon as possible. Setting realistic expectations for yourself by understanding the complexity will help you avoid disappointment and setbacks.

The rehabilitation time frame after ACL surgery is between nine to 12 months. A long rehabilitation timeframe may cause frustration but is necessary to ensure complete recovery and minimize risk.

Factors to consider before returning to sports

ACL surgery gives you a functionally stable knee and reduces the risk of subsequent injury, but rehabilitation is needed to safely return to sports. To help you get back to the sport you love, Dr. Pifer considers various factors and will provide guidelines for you to follow. Read on to learn some factors to consider.

Type of sport

Some sports are easier to return to after ACL surgery than others. For example, returning to high-level sports that require lots of pivoting of the knee requires full rehabilitation.

Ability to perform

Physical performance is a common measure used to help determine whether players can safely return to their sport. You must be able to perform the movements necessary in your sport without pain or elevated risk.

Additional injuries

Athletes who experience an ACL tear often sustain other injuries. Dr. Pifer considers any additional injuries when assessing the safety of returning to your sport. 

Overall health

An athlete’s overall health plays a crucial role in deciding when it's safe to play again. Symptoms of preexisting conditions, age, and how well you manage any health issues are taken into consideration.

The decision to return to play

Our team of experts will work with you to make a joint decision about when you can safely return to your sport. In general, you should plan on recovering for a minimum of nine months. It's possible to return sooner but this requires the right circumstances and significant discussion with your surgeon and rehabilitation team.

ACL surgery is effective in allowing injured athletes and enthusiasts to return to sports safely. Our sports medicine team provides high-quality care that enables athletes to complete a full recovery and return to their sport when it’s safe to do so.

To get started, contact our Santa Barbara office to schedule an appointment with Dr. Pifer or request a telemedicine appointment online using the webform here.

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