Jiu Jitsu Strategy and Champion Mindset
Recovering from a BJJ ACL tear

Recovering from an ACL tear

Several months ago, I had the honor of tearing my Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL). It is an essential tendon that is in the center of all of our knees. The ACL helps with all daily movement. I was training Brazilian Jiu Jitsu one night. He caught me in a rough straight ankle lock. My knee made a popping noise. I felt intense pain in my knee. I yelped and I tapped immediately. It wasn’t immediately clear to me the severity of the injury. But over the next several practices it became clear that my knee had suffered an intense injury and match by match I was losing confidence in the joint.

The ACL Consultation

I made it over to the orthopedic (sports) doctor about mid-February 2017. Doc did a simple visual inspection where he had me sit on a bench with my feet hanging off the edge of the inspection table. He gently pulled at my lower leg while keeping the bottom of my foot facing the ground. Doc did this with both of my legs. The injured leg pulled away farther from my body than the non-injured leg. We followed that up with an MRI scan to confirm the injury. The MRI was a little fuzzy in the area where the ACL should be but in any scenario, it was clear there was a serious injury.

The doctor gave me two options. I could continue to live my life without the surgery but this route meant that intense sports were out or would be very difficult. Being only thirty-nine years old, this didn’t seem like a great option. The way I see it, I have probably another 20 years of Jiu Jitsu left in me. The second option was to go ahead with the surgery.

I thought back to when I dislocated my shoulder my senior year of high school. I had to finish off my last high school wrestling season with this shoulder injury. And then I tried to live with the injury my first year of college wrestling. It was a terrible idea and it was a waste of a season. Looking back I should have fixed the shoulder before attempting a college sport. I did fix the shoulder just before graduating from college. I needed to fix this knee and do it now. I’m not getting any younger.

The doctor assured me that this was a very standard surgery and he had personally attended to hundreds of them. The bad news was recovery time would be 6 months to a year. I didn’t like this part at all. But sometimes in life, you are the hammer and sometimes you are the nail. Today was my day to be the nail. I felt like I was talking to the right doctor. He was confident and not pushing one solution over the other. I immediately set the operation date for March 3rd, 2017.

Researching the Torn ACL

I used the next couple weeks talking to friends, coworkers, and family about this type of surgery. It was important to hear people say that it was the right thing to do. A couple friends had done the surgery but at a fancier hospital called SOAR. Apparently, it is a hospital for the wealthy and pro athletes. I liked that idea but it didn’t sound like it would improve my recovery time. I spoke with my friend and chiropractor Hank. Hank had an ACL injury as well and he decided to live with his injury. He runs his business independently and could not spare the time away. Hank has done well for himself in BJJ. Like me, he is a brown belt and one the toughest old guys I ever met.

By the day of the surgery, I was mentally ready. From my previous shoulder surgery, I had some idea what was about to happen. Here is what I knew: The medical staff was going to put me completely under sedation. After the surgery, I would need someone to drive me home as I would be under heavy drugs. I would go home afterward and probably sleep off the meds.

In the moments up to the surgery, I met once with the anesthesiologist, some nurses and my doctor. They shaved my knee and hooked me up to monitors and an IV. This is where things get hazy. I woke up in what felt like a moment later. My wife is having a laugh at me because the anesthesiologist called me a ‘cheap date.’ Apparently, I only needed one dose of sedation. They needed to move me off of the gurney and onto a wheelchair. This is when I was introduced to my world of hurt. My leg was numb, unresponsive and stuck in this annoying soft cast. I remember being woken up one night because I shifted in my sleep and my knee did not agree.

The ACL Surgery

Here is what went down inside my knee. The surgery staff did not open my knee up entirely. Rather they made about 4 smaller incisions around the front of my knee and entered into the knee with endoscopes. They completely removed the older damaged ACL and put in a ‘slightly used’ ACL from a donor (cadaver). Doc drilled a hole in the lower and upper legs and lace the new tendon through the holes. They then use small screws to anchor the tendons to the bones. The nursing staff sews up the holes they created with biodegradable stitchings so no return visit needed. The staff finished off the process by wrapping my knee with gauze, and ace bandage and lastly a soft cast.

ACL Surgery Recovery

I spent the next couple days in bed. You would think this would be wonderful but it’s actually pretty boring. I took the time to read, ice the leg, physical therapy and caught up on House of Cards. On the third day, I was testing out my new crutches and trying to get used to the new soft cast. After 1 week I was done with the heavy meds. I also needed to stop them as to start driving again. At 2 weeks I was back to work. After 2.5 weeks I was leaving the soft cast in the car as it was too much hassle to put and take off for driving. After about 3 weeks I just wore a copper laced compression sleeve on the knee and I could walk about a ½ block.

If you find yourself in a similar position here are the keys to your recovery:

  1. Ice the knee (get a polar care cube if possible)
  2. Elevate the knee
  3. Compress the knee with an ace bandage, compression sleeve or something similar
  4. Physical Therapy
  5. Tylenol (No NSAIDs or ibuprofen)
  6. Bonus: Acupuncture and Cupping. I‘m giving this a shot. The surgeon did not suggest this route, however, I have had great results with Acupuncture. Hopefully, I can shave off some of that recovery time.

Here is what I Learned from Tearing my ACL

I have had a pretty healthy life. I haven’t had too many problems with my body. When I got the bad news that I was going to need the surgery it was difficult to process. It put me in a low place mentally. I started to adopt that ‘Why me?’ attitude. Six months to a year feels like an eternity when you are on the first couple days. But that didn’t feel right. Almost as soon as the thought crept into my head I could just feel deep down that wasn’t the best version of me.

Firas ZahabiI remembered this quote:

“Champions view hardship as temporary moments. They know the tough moment will pass. They stay optimistic in dark situations.”

Firas Zahabi (GSP’s Coach) said this in an earlier interview with Tom Bilyeu. This gave me the proper perspective. This got me focused again. Even though I could not be on the mat I could use my time better. I could use the time to prepare by studying, meditating, breathing exercises and weightlifting. I think that even though I am not on the mat I am still being tested. This injury is a test. A test of my resolve. I can choose to lay down and treat this like a great tragedy or I can get up and improve myself in ways that I neglected before.

I couldn’t help myself. Her is a surgery video of a knee (Not mine but same operation) getting worked.

This video is extremely graphic!

A less graphic version of the same operation.