If you’re reading this, chances are you know someone – like me – who has gone through the experience of an ACL injury. For me, that experience included not only the physical pain of the injury itself but also ACL tear depression.
The fact is, an ACL injury can be a life-altering event. It’s not just the physical pain and rehabilitation process; it’s the mental anguish that can accompany such a significant injury. I’m sharing my story in the hopes that it will help others who are going through something similar.
As I type this sentence, it serves as a reminder of how hard it is to share something so personal and vulnerable to the eyes reading this. But after 3 weeks of starting and stopping and putting this off, the constant nudge feeling made it clear that this is something I’m supposed to do.
What is an ACL Tear and How Does it Happen?
The ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) is one of the major stabilizing ligaments in your knee. It crosses from your femur (thighbone) to your tibia (shinbone), and it prevents your shinbone from sliding too far forward. An ACL tear can happen suddenly, such as when you make a sudden change in direction while playing a sport, or it can happen gradually over time.
There are several reasons why an ACL tear might happen. It could be due to a direct blow to the knee, as can happen in contact sports such as football or hockey, or from landing awkwardly from a jump, as is often seen in basketball or volleyball.
Receiving The Diagnosis While Coping with the Sports Injury
My diagnosis of an ACL tear was confirmed in the latter part of April, just a couple of weeks after my knee injury. I had gone to a non-surgical orthopedic doctor and after he saw my knee in person, an MRI was scheduled for that week.
I remember being so nervous about the MRI. The tech running the MRI images placed my leg straight, sending muscle spasms in my knee region. That same day, my doctor called me and asked me to come in because the images sent to him made him suspicious of an ACL tear.
The next day, I met with my doctor to review the MRI results. He showed me the pictures of my knee and informed me that I tore my ACL, completely. Thus, I would need the surgery if I ever wanted to dance again.
Honestly, I stopped listening when he mentioned dance. I thought, “how did he know that dance would be too difficult without surgery?”, and why is he emphasizing to me that I would Iive a limited life without surgery?
This. This is how depression after an injury can start to creep in. The thought of never dancing again, being told that I’ll have a limited life if I don’t do surgery. It was all such a mental blur from that point on.
Depression After Knee Injury From A Dancer’s Perspective
From the moment you’re given your diagnosis, you’re asked on numerous occasions by doctors, “how did your injury happen?”
My injury occurred doing the very thing l loved doing each day, moving. I was in a CrossFit-style class when my knee gave out, no weight in hand, just me and my body weight.
I didn’t feel any immediate pain, just an out-of-body experience of my knee moving in a way it wasn’t supposed to. When I hobbled to my car, I went home and resumed my day, as usual, making lunch cleaning, seeing my telehealth clients, and going about my day.
I called my husband to tell him about the injury and that it would blow over in a few days. I was adamant about returning to my physical activities in 3-5 days. It wasn’t until I started noticing that I wasn’t comfortable bearing weight on my leg that I began to ponder that my knee stiffness lasting more than a week wasn’t just a simple knee injury.
Up until the onset of physical therapy, the only thing I was certain of was this feeling of duct tape being wrapped around my knee when I tried extending or bending it.
How Being Injured Affects Your Mental Health
The thought of never dancing again was – always at the top of my mind. As a dancer, I experienced injuries in my lower body before. I’ve fractured my ankle, and bruised and cut my knee from falls but never have I ever had to deal with athlete injury depression before.
Injury-induced depression is FOMO times a million. You could go to the restroom to do something as simple as washing your hands and your injury will remind you that performing such a task isn’t an easy feat. Seeing so many people kickstart their summer vacations while you’re home-bound with a knee injury is depressing.
I remember being in the shower and crying because I couldn’t hold myself up for fear of my knee buckling. The entire process was so defeating and only made having to cope with injury depression laborious.
Injured Athlete and Depression: What I’m Dealing With
As someone that enjoys long-distance cycling, pilates, yoga, dance, and weight training, not being able to do a lot of those activities for the majority of the year is gut-wrenching. My surgeon told me that given my active lifestyle, he suspects that bike riding and Pilates will come first for me after surgery and with the help of physical therapy.
The main theme for me is feeling like a burden to my friends and family. I am someone that likes to do things on my own and so, leaning on my loved ones for physical and emotional support is not without ebbs and flows of guilt.
Do I call my sister to help me move a chair that I need to vacuum under? Do I ask my husband to get me a drink of water even though he’s already getting himself one? These are the small, but very real things that people with ACL tears have to deal with every day. My answer to that is, yes, if after surgery I need something, I will ask for help despite the guilt.
Confiding friends about my injury was – and still is – one of the hardest things for me. It feels like I’m reinjuring myself just by talking about it.
But, you feel worse when you don’t so, talking to someone has been a huge help for me.
How To Help An Injured Friend
One of the first utterances my friends would say to me directly was, “how can I help you, Kb?”
For those reading this that know someone with an ACL tear and need help on what to say to someone who just got injured, here are some helpful tips:
– Acknowledge what they’re going through. “Your feelings are incredibly valid, I’m so sorry.”
– Avoid making comparisons. “I once sprained my ankle, I know how you feel.”
– Check-in on them often but don’t be overbearing. “I’m thinking of you, how are you feeling today?”
– Be a good listener. “Do you want to talk about what’s going on?”
– Offer to help with day-to-day tasks. “Can I bring you dinner tonight or do anything for you?”
– Suggest healthy coping mechanisms. “Have you tried yoga or meditation?”
– Most importantly, let them know you’re there for them. “I’m here for you, even when you want to be alone.”
End Goal: To Feel Good After ACL Reconstruction
With my surgery just shy of a week away, I’ve been trying to take a more holistic approach to my health and well-being.
90% of my diet consists of anti-inflammatory foods like ginger, kale, blueberries, spinach, fish, and turmeric to name a few. I try to drink a gallon of water a day and I’ve been praying and meditating daily to help prepare my mind for the long recovery ahead.
Nutrition, paired with physical therapy, 2x/week to help increase the range of motion in my knee and improve my quadriceps before my upcoming surgery.
Despite the unavoidable grief I’ve experienced and the inevitable post-surgery sadness I’ll feel, I am hopeful that I will return to feeling like myself again soon after my surgery.
I’ll be sure to update everyone on my post-op progress and if you have any questions, please feel free to reach out to me on here or Instagram.