When a Player Can Return to Sport After an Orthopedic Sports Injury is one of the most frequently asked questions of me – from the patients themselves, their parents (if they’re minors) and from the media, especially if I’m being interviewed about a professional athlete. The answer is rarely the same, and I’m sure you can understand why. Recovery is as unique to the individual as is their genetic makeup – it really does depend on a wide variety of factors. However, for many common orthopedic injuries, there’s usually a fairly consistent timeline for return to sport or active living. In the interest of providing at least some answer to this frequently asked question, we’ll dive into it here.
Out of curiosity, I sometimes visit the internet and type in search terms I think my patients might use when they’re “paging Dr. Google,” often in an effort to see what kind of misinformation is out there and how I can help correct it. Interestingly enough, when I begin to type in “ACL…,” Google smart-populates my search with this first option: “ACL recovery timeline.” I find this curious mainly because that pops up before “ACL tear.” We sure are an impatient society, aren’t we? Before we want to know about the injury itself, we want to know how long it’s going to take to heal. Hurry up already!
First thing’s first: Recovery duration depends on the nature and severity of the injury. The most common injuries to the knee consist of ACL sprains or tears, and these are graded on a three-tier severity scale. As you can imagine, the more severe the injury, the more time it may take to heal. And it should be noted that complete ACL tears will not heal on their own without surgical correction. In these cases, surgical reparation is performed, and a period of physical therapy follows. The return-to-play timeline in this scenario is usually about six months. To an athlete, that sounds like an eternity. But I’ll tell you this: I’ve seen some recoveries take less time, and I’ve seen some take more. I’ve also seen some push it before they were ready, only to reinjure the knee and be sidelined for even longer while it heals. A word to the wise: Pushing a surgically reconstructed ACL before it’s ready is never, ever a good idea.
In addition to being unique to an individual’s personal healing timeline, the timeline for healing of a bone fracture also depends on where the fracture is located. As you can imagine, the healing time on a pinky finger fracture (three to five weeks) is typically much shorter than the healing time for a broken collarbone (five to 10 weeks). Even after bones heal, in some cases physical therapy may be necessary to regain complete range of motion in the affected area. This can increase the return-to-play timeframe from weeks to months in some cases.
Strains and Sprains
When most people think of the word “strain,” it’s often perceived as less serious than a sprain. That isn’t necessarily true, depending especially on where the strain occurred. Calf strains, for example, usually take at least three weeks to heal on the low end – and more severe strains can take up to three months. Hardly a no-big-deal injury, is it?
On the other had, a minor ankle sprain could take less than a week to heal before a player is back out on the field. A major sprain to the ankle, though, could take up to six weeks of recovery time before completely healing.
As you can see, recovery timelines and return-to-play prognostications can be tough to give a blanket answer on when we’re asked that popular question: How long before I can get back to playing? What I’ll tell you is this: Listen to your doctor. He or she isn’t interested in “holding you back” when they give you the recovery timeline for your injury. What they do want is to help your body completely heal so you can return to playing the sports and participating in the activities you love while reducing the risk of further injury. Your job is to be a good patient and take the time required to recover properly. I promise you’ll be glad you did.