Does a partial ACL tear need surgery?

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are very common in people who play sports or lead active lives. Hundreds of thousands of people undergo ACL reconstruction surgery every year. But does a patient with a partial ACL tear need surgery? In this Ask Dr. Geier video, I discuss what a partial ACL tear means and when you might need ACL surgery.

Jeric asks:
Does a partial ACL tear need a surgery?

You typically suffer a torn ACL landing from a jump or planting your foot to quickly change directions. The knee buckles, and you fall to the ground. You feel (and sometime hear) a pop in your knee, and you develop intense pain and swelling.

Usually you suffer a complete ACL injury, where the entire ligament is torn. If your doctor orders an MRI, it might show a partial ACL tear, but only a small number of fibers are intact. Often it reads high-grade partial ACL tear or something similar. This is essentially a complete ACL tear in the sense that the knee is still unstable, and the few remaining fibers cannot stabilize the knee.

Image of a partial ACL tear with most of the ligament fibers torn

In this video, I discuss the distinction between a complete and partial ACL tear. I explain when you could need surgery if you have a partial ACL and how the doctor can make the decision.

Also read:
Can I wear a brace instead of having surgery for an ACL tear?
Can you avoid surgery for an ACL tear?