Learning to walk again after ACL surgery is critical. This may sound odd at first but what we’re talking about is the ability to walk in the most optimal and efficient manner. In fact, the way we used to walk without thinking about it before we suffered our ACL injury. ACL recovery cannot be considered complete until we’re able to walk with our normal gait, i.e. without a limp, and this requires knee strengthening exercises.
“Learning” how to walk normally is extremely important because we need to overcome the brain’s ability to figure out interim solutions for us when we’re suffering pain. With an ACL injury [that causes pain when the knee bends] the brain will have us swing the leg around as we walk rather than bend normally.
Unfortunately, this brain-influenced, artificial walk will remain long after the injury heals unless we take action to correct it and “learn” to walk properly. Long term, failure to make these corrections can cause problems in other parts of the body as further compensations are made.
Fortunately, there are lots of knee strengthening exercises that you can do to improve your walking and that will enable you to walk without a limp, to walk pain free and exercises that, at the same time, will strengthen the knee and improve its movement.
There are four major movements of the knee that need to be worked on such that the knee will work properly when walking.
1) The Squat – squatting exercises are important for knee strengthening because so much of our lives involve getting in and out of seated positions. Introducing a wobble or rocker board (6+ weeks post ACL surgery) works to address neuromuscular retraining.
2) Balance – this is often ignored in recovery from ACL injury but is actually really important as balance plays a key role in walking. Standing on the injured leg and balancing is a simple and effective exercise for balance improvement.
3) The Lunge – reaching forward with one leg and bending the knees is a part of walking. The lunge accentuates this movement while at the same time building strength in the knee.
4) Step up – exercises to improve our ability to step up are extremely important. Walking up and down stairs is an everyday activity but a significant challenge after an ACL injury. A simple “gym step” can be used for these exercises with benefit gained from stepping on the uninjured as well as the injured leg.
Knee strengthening exercises as well as exercises to improve your walk should be a part of everyday life for at least 6 months after ACL surgery and until the ability to walk with a normal gait is reached.