A Real Life Guide To ACL Surgery & Recovery

Hiking before ACL surgery

If you’re reading this, you already know the moment – the moment when you heard a pop and your life, or at least the life of your knee, changed forever. 

It was a sickening moment. 

A moment I would go back and change in a heartbeat (I don’t have many moment that I regret so deeply that I wish I could change them, but this is top of the list). 

But the thing is, we can’t go back. We can’t change things. So, I’ve written this guide instead. A real life guide to ACL surgery and recovery, from a regular person who ruptured her ACL; not a guide from a doctor or a physio or surgeon who is hungry to wield a scalpel.

I had my surgery in late 2016. I wrote a short post about it at the time, giving details of what my ACL surgery was like (there were a few surprises). Then I added to it, updating the post with regular diary entries, charting the timeline of my ACL recovery. That post started a conversation, with hundreds of comments from other, regular people, asking questions, sharing suggestions and generally supporting each other in our collective recovery,

Then I suffered some injuries on the road to recovery and scrambled about to find some solutions. I ended up writing a bit more, about things I would have done differently during my recovery. And then I wrote another post to give a handy list of all the tried and tested products I’ve used along the way. 

What started as one post has sprawled to pages of tips and advice on getting ACL surgery and how best to recover after an ACL repair. 

It was time to split it all up and make it more manageable for you all to digest – you’re already having to digest the idea of ACL surgery. The last thing I want to do is make your life more difficult by dumping all my tips and experiences into one very long post. 

Hence, this post – my real life guide to ACL surgery and recovery. From here you can access all of my other guides, tricks and tips and experiences from having my ACL repaired. Feel free to bookmark this page and check back along the various stages of your ACL journey.

Good luck!

Tearing my ACL

Hello, I’m Jo and I ruptured my ACL. That’s not all I did – I added a grade II tear to my MCL and ripped my meniscus all in the same moment. 

I was on a remote island in the British Virgin Islands, several days’ travel from a proper doctor or hospital when I did it.

Of course, the BVIs are renowned for their rich clientele (sadly, I’m not one of them – I was on a shared catamaran, bunking with strangers to be able to afford the trip). But amongst the affluent visitors was a good number of doctors and surgeons. It didn’t take long to get an informal ‘probably a ruptured ACL’ diagnosis.

Those quick look diagnoses from those half-cut experts were subsequently confirmed by MRI, back in the UK. 

What took much longer, was the wait for my surgery – it’s wonderful that the UK’s National Health Service covers the cost of ACL surgery, but I was at the bottom of a very long list. So, I sat down, leg up to wait…

Then, finally, in September 2016, after 9 months of waiting, it was my turn. 

You might be interested to know that at the time of injury I was 39 years old, active but not the fittest I’ve been in my life (too many stops at the street food stand). I’m also a perfectionist but, sadly, a bit of a pain wimp.  

Read my knee injury story here: When Life Screams: Stop Travelling

ACL surgery – 15 things they don’t tell you


My ACL surgery wasn’t my first time under the knife – I’d had a deviated septum repaired back in 2010. Yes, I know that’s commonly code for having had a nose job, but this was legit. It WAS! Anyway, I digress.

My point was that I was no stranger to surgery, so I thought I knew what to expect. Ok, knee surgery meant I wouldn’t be able to walk very easily but it was key-hole surgery, no biggy, no biggy at all. At least that’s what the doctor led me to believe.

When I got my dad to finally peel off the dressing after the first day of surgery (yes, I was 40 years old and yes I made my dad do it), I was horrified at the size of the cut. And that wasn’t the only surprise about my ACL surgery. That’s why I ended up writing about the 15 surprises of ACL surgery. 

Read about it here: 15 Surprises From My ACL Repair Surgery – What They Don’t Tell You

My ACL recovery timeline

With my leg elevated, and travel off the cards for some time, what else was there to do besides blog about my ACL recovery? In those early days, I wanted to write about my ACL recovery timeline, to keep a diary of it, almost for myself so I could remember how it had been (and with the hope I’d be able to look back and think how far I’d come). 

In those first few weeks I wrote about the first few hours in hospital, the first 24 hours, the first few days, the first week, 10 days, 2 weeks and 3 weeks. In those detailed posts, I catalogued my pain and medication, use of crutches, physio, swelling, range of motion, sleeping, bathing and, for the gore seekers, I included pictures of my incision site and the staples (not stitches).

After those first few weeks, I updated my recovery timeline after weeks 4, 6, 8, 12 and 16.

I then added further updates after 6 months, 8 months and 12 months.

I’ve added a couple of yearly updates too. Don’t be horrified. Remember, I’m a perfectionist and therefore, I’m constantly striving to have my knee back to 100% even though every physio I’ve ever met has told me that’s not realistic.

I’ve put all of these updates into one handy post and of all my posts, I’ll keep it updated most. Also, check out the comments – there are hundreds of them from wonderful people like you. Sharing and caring. 

Read about it here: ACL Repair – Timeline of My Recovery (With Pictures)

15 things I would have done differently to recover after ACL surgery

Injured knee before ACL surgery and not much better 2 yers later

What’s the saying? In hindsight you have 20:20 vision, or something like that? Well, I got a lot of hindsight over the last few years of my recovery. I did have some bumps along the way, my recovery wasn’t easy or straightforward.

Before surgery I was a runner. Nothing intense, maximum 10km (about 6 miles) but more commonly half that. I was also an avid yogi, hitting my yoga mat at least a few times a week. Both of these activities at some point during my recovery, caused me problems. In fact, I ended up with bursitis, which sent me on a journey of private physiotherapy. It was another almost year off the knee. But it taught me a lot.

It was after that stop-start-recovery-injury-recovery yo-yoing that I wroteabout what I’d learned and what I would have done differently. 

Read about it here: ACL Surgery Recovery – 15 Things I Would Have Done Differently

17 gadgets to help your ACL recovery

And last but by no means least, the tools that have helped me along the way. I confess, I’m a fan of gadgets and gizzmos and, frankly, if there was a product out there that even hinted at improving or speeding up my recovery, I tried it. I’m not talking about expensive things. Some of them I got for free from my physio. Many cost me under £15/$20. All of them were under £75/$100. 

So I decided to write about that too.

Don’t worry, you don’t need to buy any fancy products to recover from ACL surgery, just follow the physio. However, if you have friends and family who want to help you out with a recovery gift, and you want to swerve the temptation of lots of chocolate at a time when you’re pretty immobile, wave this list under their nose. 

Read about it here: Gadgets That Helped My ACL Recovery

And if you want some technical, medical info on ACL repair surgery, check out these posts: From the NHS and Physiopedia

So, that’s it – my posts that form my guide to ACL Surgery and Recovery. I don’t have new knees to hand out or a time machine to march back to the time before you heard the pop but I do hope you find find some useful tips from my ACL experience. If there is anything missing or if you have any questions, let me know in the comments below.  

ACL picture in hospital bed

10 thoughts on “A Real Life Guide To ACL Surgery & Recovery”

  1. Hi, thanks for your posts on ACL surgery, the info was really helpful and so well structured. I thought I’d add a few comments following my ACL and meniscus surgery last week on 9th Feb 2023 that may be helpful for others:

    – I live in London and had my surgery done on the NHS. The surgeon, hospital staff and aftercare has been excellent. The pre-op and post-op instructions, physio and guidelines are also well structured and easy to follow. My surgeon saw me straight after the operation and was really positive about the results. The ACL was reconstructed and the meniscus repaired (this was my biggest worry as sometimes it cannot be repaired, and is therefore removed).

    – I was slightly nervous before the surgery but it goes really quickly once you receive the anaesthetic and all I remember was waking up afterwards (wasn’t in much discomfort). I stayed in hospital overnight but they were keen to release me on the day of the surgery. I only stayed as I was told beforehand that I would be, so planned accordingly.

    – I haven’t been in much pain this first week and have experienced little to no swelling. It is most painful after waking up as the knee naturally becomes stiff. The hospital provided me with 7 days of painkillers but I’ve ramped down and swapped to paracetemol now. The pain/ sensation is comparable to the day after I ruptured my ACL and my leg then locked up completely. I went to A&E and was given a brace to straighten my leg.

    – I’ve been doing physio at home 3-4 times a day as encouraged by the physio. The physio saw me in the hospital immediately before and after the surgery to explain the exercises and gave me a booklet which explains everything clearly (set out in phases, weeks 0-2, 2-6, 6-12 etc). The physio can be uncomfortable but not painful, and helps massively with improving mobility.

    – I live with family so have help around the house which has been essential. I have hardly left the house so far as it takes too long to walk anywhere. Consider options for essentials such as food shopping, cleaning, house work, caring for pets etc as I have been unable to do any of this.

    – Lightweight, loose and flexible trousers have been useful as my leg mobility is still restricted.

    – I ruptured my ACL 10 years ago playing football but managed to get by without surgery. I tore my meniscus 14 months ago which forced me to get surgery as I lost all stability in my knee and had pain when walking for extended periods. I have always been active following both injuries (gym, cycling and walking) so my legs were fairly well conditioned going into surgery. I also had full range of movement and no swelling or pain as the surgery was 14 months after my meniscus injury, so had time to recover and prepare. I think this has helped my early recovery so any form of pre-op physio/ strengthening will go a long way, even if not perfect. It can be worthwhile working with a physio for guidance. Note that my good leg aches a lot from supporting most of my bodyweight so this can also be a reason to strengthen your lower body.

    – I’m only at 1 week post-op so still have a long way to go. I have a check-up with my surgeon in 1 week, so hopefully this goes well and there are no complications or setbacks.

    – Really useful items which I have relied on so far:

    Shower sleeve for leg. Note – I remove my brace for showering as it covers most of my leg, and then put this sleeve on. This size of sleeve has been perfect for me as the incisions are just above and just below the knee. I then tape a bin bag on top for extra security.

    Resistance band (Useful to lift your leg into bed or onto a foot-rest etc, as it can be hard to even move your leg in the first few days. Could use towel or bed sheet as well)

    Small exercise ball, useful for leg straightening exercises (can use a towel):

    Ice pack with a strap, lots on Amazon. More practical than loose packs.
    Basic slip on knee supports are useful to give your knee a bit more stability.

    All the best!

  2. nobody tells you how hard it is to recover mentally from an injury. they tell you to go to physical therapy, but not (talk) therapy.
    mental strength is not something we can see. we can’t recognize it and we can’t observe it’s growth. it’s growth is seen in the little moments that we tend to overlook – in a smile, a tear, or a genuine laugh. it is seen in moments of raw emotion when we are unapologetically ourselves. mental strength is proven in our daily victories & in the successes we never believed we were capable of. let your strength show. let others see that even our hardest days will only last 24 hours, which will soon end and lead us to a new day with a new beginning. please know that it is ok to not be okay. whatever you are going through WILL get easier. you will make it through this.

    I had a really hard time mentally. Physically too, obviously (I didn’t just tear my ACL, I tore my MCL, MPFL, and broke my tibia and a few other bones) so I needed to wait months, like you before I could get surgery and was in physical therapy for over a year both before and after surgery. I think that made it really hard for me mentally because it was a long time for me to be going through everything. I was depressed, gained weight, had to be dependent on people for a lot of things, couldn’t shower myself, couldn’t drive, was basically stuck on a couch most of the time for weeks/months. I had days when I would just cry for hours.

    Also, to other people who may read this: don’t be afraid to be active again after surgery and after you’re recovered. Don’t be afraid to live and have fun. I was afraid for so long after and I’m first getting over that now, 6 years post op. Fear holds you back from a lot of things but life is too short.

    • Hi Kate, you are so right – one thing I’ve only skirted around in my post post is the mental challenges that come with knee surgery. I’m so sorry it took you a long time to recover your confidence but I’m glad that you seem to have gotten there. I admit there are still times when worries about my knee hold me back. I recently went snowshoeing and I fretted so much in advance that my knee wouldn’t be able to support this new activity. Of course, it was a huge boost when I succeeded, but so much worry. It takes its toll. Thanks so much for sharing you experience, it can’t have been easy but you have raised a crucial point. Good luck with the rest of your adventures with your knee.

  3. I have a friend that is in hospitaalSouth Africa in kzn province. has been there for 3weeks. He has suicidal thoughts now as he says it frustrating him being far away from family and feeling helpless. His fear is the the unknown body change. Your guide will help him a lot and just shared it with him as I see it is what he needs to hear and understand. Thank you for sharing your journey. God bless you.

    • Hi Sarah, I am so sorry to hear about your friend. I hope he is getting professional support for his suicidal feelings. If he wants to message me about his knee, I’m happy to answer any questions – it will get better for him 🙂

  4. Hi Jo
    Sat on the sofa as a 40 year old woman who loves to run – 5 days post ACL surgery!

    I found your posts super helpful – they will help me plan, prepare and motivate for the rehab journey. And I can totally relate to the ‘static bike’ comments – my physio is already sick of me telling him ‘but it’s so boring’ :-)!!

    Thanks for taking the time to share your experience.

    • Hi Sally, sorry to hear you’ve bust your ACL – congrats on the surgery and for doing some research. Happy to help with the tips. And yes, the bike is SOOOO boring (but so useful). Keep up the good work.

  5. This is so helpful! Currently waiting for ACL surgery after an injury in February that was misdiagnosed: finding the idea of putting all this time into building up muscle and strength, knowing it will atrophy again after surgery, hard to swallow!

    • Hi Lindsay, I know – it is difficult to face but I think you’ll be in a much better position/will gain the strength back quicker if you doing the pre-hab now. Good luck with the surgery.


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