Anterior cruciate ligament tear

Dr Daniel J Bell and Radswiki et al.

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears are the most common knee ligament injury encountered in radiology and orthopedic practice.

Patients usually present complaining that their knee "gives way" especially during pivoting movements. They also describe apprehension when attempting to do non linear tasks. They usually describe a popping sensation at the time of injury combined with swelling and the initial inability to weight wear which improves in a short period. The combination of the Lachman, pivot shift and anterior drawer tests is used to clinically confirm the diagnosis 9. A positive pivot shift is considered the most sensitive clinical sign 10

The ACL is the most commonly disrupted ligament of the knee, especially in athletes who participate in sports that involve rapid starting, stopping, and pivoting (e.g. soccer, basketball, tennis, netball and snow skiing).

An avulsion of the tibial attachment may be seen in younger patients.

Considered to have high specificity and sensitivity in detecting ACL disruption 6. CT is helpful in characterizing the avulsion bone fragment when it is present. 

Imaging of ACL tears should be divided into primary and secondary signs.

Primary signs are those that pertain to the ligament itself. Secondary signs are those which are closely related to ACL injuries.

  • swelling
  • increased signal on T2 or PDFS
  • fiber discontinuity
  • change in the expected course of ACL: ACL angle that is less steep than Blumensaat's line: when drawing a line in the course of a normal ACL on the sagittal image the angle should be as steep or steeper than the intercondylar roof, so the apex is pointing posteriorly. If the ACL is less steep than the intercondylar roof (i.e. the apex of the angle points anteriorly) means that ACL is completely torn and collapsed
  • empty notch sign, in case of avulsion at the femoral attachment

ACL tears typically occur in the middle portion of the ligament (midsubstance tears) and appear as discontinuity of the ligament or abnormal contour. The signal of the ACL can be more hyperintense on T2. If the angle is still normal and there is a hyperintense signal, a partial rupture is more likely than a complete rupture.

ACL tear may only involve one bundle. Imaging signs of isolated posterolateral bundle tear are as follows: 

  • gap sign: fluid signal and/or a gap between the medial aspect of the lateral femoral condyle and the lateral aspect of the mid-ACL,can be seen on either axial or coronal MRI images.
  • footprint sign: incomplete coverage of the lateral aspect of the tibial spine of the tibia by the distal ACL attachment, seen only on coronal MRI images 8

Secondary signs include 7:

Knee pathology

The knee is a complex synovial joint that can be affected by a range of pathologies:

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Article information

rID: 12490
Tag: knee, refs
Synonyms or Alternate Spellings:
  • Anterior cruciate ligament rupture
  • ACL rupture
  • Tear of ACL
  • Tearing of ACL
  • Rupture of ACL
  • Tear of anterior cruciate ligament
  • ACL tear
  • ACL sprain
  • Anterior cruciate ligament tears
  • Anterior cruciate ligament ruptures
  • ACL tears
  • ACL tearing

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Cases and figures

  • ACL tear
    Figure 1: Illustration - ACL tear mechanism
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  • Case 1: sprain
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  • ACL avulsion
    Figure 2: Illustration - ACL avulsion fracture
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  • Case 2: incomplete tear
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  • Case 3: complete tear
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  • Case 4: complete tear
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  • Segond fracture
    Case 5: with Segond fracture
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  • Case 6: complete tear with concurrent MCL tear
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  • Case 7: ACL avulsion injury
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  • PD FS sagittal ob...
    Case 8: ACL graft tear
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  •  Case 9
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  • Case 10
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  • Case 11
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  • Case 12: complete ACL tear
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  • Case 13: partial disruption - anteromedial bundle
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  • The ACL and PCL a...
    Case 14: post dislocation
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  • Case 15: typical
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  • Case 16
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