Knee ACL Injury May Change Brain Function After Rehab

Knee ACL Injury May Change Brain Function After Rehab Blog

ACL Basics

A common and debilitating knee injury is a tear of the Anterior Cruciate Ligament, or ACL. This important structure holds the tibia bone of the shin in place, preventing it from shifting forward. during movement. The ACL is responsible for roughly 90 percent of knee stability in adults. Because torn ligaments cannot repair themselves, they often require surgical reconstruction when the tear in severe. Most ACL injuries are sustained while playing agility sports that require rapid directional changes, sudden stopping, rapid deceleration, twisting and jumping. While men sustain more ACL injuries overall, female athletes are at higher risk, being two to four times more likely to sustain an ACL injury during sports.

Reconstruction and Rehab

In general, a torn ACL means reduced knee stability and increased risk of injury when an athlete returns to play. While reconstructive knee surgery can resolve some of the stability issues, full recovery demands extensive high level ACL rehabilitation, dedicated training and ongoing maintenance. Even after a complete battery of ACL injury treatment and therapy, there is evidence to suggest there may be some alterations in brain processes after injury, specifically motor, sensory and sensory-visual-spacial processing that govern functional movement.

Brain Function and Athletic Performance

Athletes who return to play after ACL reconstruction are 30 to 40 times more likely to incur a second ACL injury than athletes with no history of ACL injury. In a recent study, Grooms et al. (2016) sought to explain alterations in athletes’ movement mechanics unrelated to physiological or biological changes after ACL reconstruction and rehab.

The researchers suspected that ACL injury led to neuroplastic changes due to the loss of ACL mechanoreceptors, and to compensation in neuromuscular control. They used MRI imaging to assess the brain function of athletes post-ACL reconstruction during a motor task of unilateral knee flexion and extension. Their findings suggest that brain activation during knee movement after ACL reconstruction shifts to a visual-motor strategy rather than a sensory motor strategy.

Implications for ACL Rehab Treatment

An interesting and important finding that emerged from this study is that traditional ACL rehabilitation treatment may be in part responsible for changes in brain activation patterns. This is because traditional therapy encourages focused attention on the knee with visual and cognitive position control during movement. The authors suggest that shifting the focus of the brain to the external environment rather than the knee during rehab could reduce the neuroplastic adaptations seen after knee reconstruction.

Cutting Edge Treatment in NYC

When it comes to ACL injury treatment, the sports medicine specialists at NYDNR are on top of their game. Not only do we keep current with the latest research, but we embrace newly emerging approaches to therapy, to give our patients the very best treatment and care. If you have sustained an ACL tear or knee reconstruction, you can trust the sports medicine team at NYDNR to provide you with the best rehabilitation and treatment in NYC.


Grooms, DR et al.(2016). Neuroplasticity associated with anterior cruciate ligament reconstruction. Journal of Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy, 47(3), 180-189.

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