Partial vs. Complete: Understanding Different Types of ACL Injuries

In the realm of sports injuries, few are as dreaded as the ACL tear. Whether you're an athlete or a fitness enthusiast, the words "ACL injury" can strike fear into your heart. But not all ACL injuries are created equal. Understanding the differences between partial and complete ACL tears is crucial for proper diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. Let's delve into the world of ACL injuries and shed some light on these two distinct types.

What is the ACL?

Firstly, let's break down what exactly the ACL is. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the four major ligaments in the knee joint. It runs diagonally in the middle of the knee and helps stabilize it by preventing excessive forward movement of the tibia (shin bone) in relation to the femur (thigh bone).

Partial ACL Tears: The Gray Area

A partial ACL tear occurs when only a portion of the ligament is damaged. This can happen due to a sudden twisting motion, hyperextension of the knee, or a direct blow to the knee. Symptoms of a partial tear may include pain, swelling, and instability in the knee, but they are often less severe than those of a complete tear.

The tricky part about partial ACL tears is that they can sometimes go unnoticed or be misdiagnosed. The symptoms may not be as pronounced, and the knee may still feel relatively stable, leading some individuals to believe that it's just a minor injury. However, neglecting a partial tear can lead to further damage and increased risk of future injury, so it's essential to seek proper medical evaluation and treatment.

Complete ACL Tears: A Game Changer

A complete ACL tear is a more severe injury where the ligament is completely ruptured. This often occurs during high-impact sports or activities that involve sudden stops, changes in direction, or landing from a jump. Unlike partial tears, complete ACL tears typically result in significant pain, swelling, and instability in the knee. Many people report hearing or feeling a pop at the time of injury, followed by the difficulty to bear weight on the affected leg.

Diagnosing a complete ACL tear usually involves a physical examination, imaging tests such as MRI, and sometimes arthroscopy to assess the extent of the damage. Treatment for a complete tear often involves surgery to reconstruct the ligament followed by extensive rehabilitation to regain strength, stability, and range of motion in the knee.

Treatment and Rehabilitation

Whether you have a partial or complete ACL tear, the goals of treatment and rehabilitation are similar: to reduce pain and swelling, restore normal function and range of motion, and prevent future injuries. However, the approach may vary depending on the severity of the injury and the individual's activity level and goals.

For partial tears, conservative treatments such as rest, physical therapy, and bracing may be sufficient to allow the ligament to heal and regain stability. In some cases, however, surgery may be recommended, especially if the tear is causing persistent symptoms or if there is evidence of ongoing instability.

For complete tears, surgery is often recommended, particularly for individuals who wish to return to high-demand activities such as sports. ACL reconstruction surgery involves replacing the torn ligament with a graft, typically taken from another part of the body or from a donor. Following surgery, a structured rehabilitation program is essential to rebuild strength, improve stability, and gradually return to normal activities.

Prevention is Key

While ACL injuries can be devastating, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk. These include:

  1. Proper conditioning: Maintain strength, flexibility, and balance through regular exercise and targeted training.
  2. Technique: Practice proper movement mechanics and techniques, especially in sports and activities that involve cutting, pivoting, and jumping.
  3. Equipment: Wear appropriate footwear!
  4. Warm-up and cool-down: Always warm up before physical activity to prepare your muscles and joints, and cool down afterward to aid in recovery and prevent stiffness.


In the world of ACL injuries, understanding the difference between partial and complete tears is crucial for accurate diagnosis and effective treatment. While both types of injuries can be challenging to overcome, with proper medical care, rehabilitation, and preventive measures, individuals can often return to their previous level of activity and reduce the risk of future injury. If you suspect you have an ACL injury, don't hesitate to seek professional medical advice to guide you on the path to recovery.

Stepping Towards Recovery: Partnering with Puckett Physical Therapy for ACL Injuries

In the journey to overcome ACL injuries, having the right support and guidance can make all the difference. Here at Puckett Physical Therapy, Dr. Tim Puckett and our dedicated team are committed to helping you regain strength, stability, and confidence in your knee.

Whether you're dealing with a partial tear or facing the challenges of a complete rupture, our comprehensive approach to rehabilitation is tailored to meet your unique needs and goals. From initial assessment to personalized treatment plans and ongoing support, we're with you every step of the way.

Don't let an ACL injury hold you back from doing what you love. Take the first step towards recovery by contacting our office at (210) 742-9423 or visiting our website to learn more about how we can help you get back on track. Together, we'll navigate the road to recovery and get you back to living life to the fullest.