Josh Sheldon is no stranger to soccer-related knee injuries.

Soccer is both his passion and his job. He’s the executive director of Midwest United Football Club and he owns the Grand Rapids Football Club, a men’s semi-pro soccer team.

So when he felt a snap after a quick pivot during an indoor soccer game this spring, he immediately suspected an ACL injury.

The ACL, or anterior cruciate ligament, connects the thigh bone to the shin bone at the knee. It’s often called the “sports ligament” because these injuries are very common among athletes, with about 400,000 repair surgeries each year in the U.S.

“It felt like my knee wasn’t there, there was no stability,” Sheldon said. “When I walked, it felt like there was Jell-O in my kneecap.”

After the injury he headed straight to the Spectrum Health Orthopedic Urgent Care, where an MRI confirmed he had damaged his ACL and torn his meniscus, the cartilage that acts like a shock absorber between the bones.

With his family’s spring break trip on the calendar, he postponed his surgery until after his return from Florida.

The delay proved beneficial. It gave him a chance to get his leg into the best possible shape before surgery.

Prehab, surgery, rehab

After his diagnosis, Sheldon received some good advice from Spectrum Health athletic trainer Luke Murray, who works with the Grand Rapids Football Club.

He recommended starting exercises for pre-hab, or pre-surgery rehabilitation, right away.

“I did a bunch of exercises during spring break,” Sheldon said. “The pre-hab really helps when you come out of surgery.”

Orthopedic surgeon Kendall Hamilton, MD, who performed Sheldon’s ACL reconstruction and meniscus repair, agrees.

“Most commonly, with an ACL tear, there is a lot of inflammation and swelling,” Dr. Hamilton said. “Pre-surgery rehabilitation helps to restore the patient’s range of motion, reduce pain, reduce swelling and strengthen the muscles for better outcomes.”

When the day of surgery arrived, needle-shy Sheldon was understandably apprehensive. But the office staff was extremely friendly and the surgery team had him laughing and relaxed before the operation began.

“I had surgery at 11:30 a.m., and I was back home by 2 p.m.,” Sheldon said. “Everybody was awesome.”

For serious athletes, the surgery usually involves grafting tissue from the same leg to repair the damage. But cadaver tissue is an option for casual athletes like 42-year-old Sheldon.

The benefits? It makes rehab and recovery easier while still enabling an active lifestyle.

Just two days after surgery, Sheldon met Kurt Lockman, the Spectrum Health physical therapist who would guide him through the rehabilitation process.

“They got me right in, gave me exercises and had me doing therapy with Kurt twice a week,” Sheldon said. “He’s been awesome … he pushes me hard, but not too hard.”

The physical therapy began with controlling inflammation, improving movement and retraining muscles. Now the work is focused on functional strengthening. Eventually, Sheldon should reach his goal of running again.

“Josh has been great to work with,” Lockman said. “He is motivated and willing to work, which is a great combination in a physical therapy patient.”

Thanks to a post-operative recovery pilot program, Dr. Hamilton visits the physical therapy clinic every Tuesday morning to conduct followup appointments. This lets him observe patients doing their range-of-motion and strength exercises, and it facilitates communication between the doctor, the physical therapist and the patient.

“Patients really like the convenience of the program,” Lockman said. “They are able to get two appointments in with just one trip.”

Sheldon was often joined by his 9-year-old daughter, Irelyn, who is recovering from a broken foot. He lauds the Spectrum Health Rehabilitation Services staff for coordinating their appointments.

Year-round sports, year-round injuries

The number of ACL injuries is on the rise, according to Dr. Hamilton, who performs the repair surgery about 150 times each year.

In the past, doctors saw more of the injuries in the fall and winter, but the trend toward year-round sports for kids means injuries can happen any time.

Soccer and basketball have the highest risk for knee injuries, but the growing popularity of lacrosse, field hockey and CrossFit means more mishaps because they all involve quick start-stop movements and side-to-side changes in direction. The switch from grass to artificial surfaces is also a factor.

Want to avoid getting hurt? Proper warm-up and cool-down activities can help. Also, it’s important for athletes to learn proper jumping and landing techniques.

And if you do get injured?

“It’s not the end of the world when you have an injury like this,” said Sheldon, who is eager to get back into running. “I saw so many helpful, friendly people along the way. Mine is definitely a happy ending story.”