COLUMN: My experiences with physical therapy


Courtesy of Kiran Muttathil

Kiran Muttathil (’23) dribbles the ball during a field hockey game.

My experience with physical therapy has been extremely different from my friends and teammates due to the nature and severity of my injury. Many people start physical therapy with a definite endpoint in mind. They’ll go for a couple weeks, feel better, and return to their sport. I started physical therapy 15 months ago and will continue indefinitely.

I started physical therapy in October of 2020 after tearing my ACL during an East field hockey game. My sophomore season I had earned my spot as a starting defender on varsity. Unfortunately, just a few weeks into the season, I tore my ACL in a field hockey game at Eastern Regional. As I was racing an Eastern player for the ball, I took an awkward step and my knee buckled. I heard a loud pop and fell to the ground. I tried to stand back up but fell again.

The Eastern athletic trainer did a quick evaluation on my knee and recommended that I get an MRI. My mom quickly made an appointment and we soon learned that I had completely torn my left ACL. I was absolutely devastated. In all my years of playing sports, I had never had any kind of injury so to suffer one of the worst injuries possible during my first varsity season was heartbreaking.

For those unfamiliar with the timeline of an ACL injury, it has one of the longest recoveries of any sports injury. It typically requires reconstructive surgery and 9-12 months of recovery. My surgery was scheduled for November 2020 and I was immediately placed in physical therapy to strengthen my leg before surgery. After ACL reconstruction, your leg is immobilized for 1-3 months in a full leg brace to allow your new ACL graft to heal. This leads to a lot of muscle atrophy so physical therapy before surgery helps to prevent some of that.

After surgery, I was going to physical therapy twice a week. The primary goal in the first month after ACL reconstruction is regaining full range of motion. Although I was able to bend my knee all the way, my knee extension was extremely painful and difficult. My knee was stiff and appeared to be permanently bent. My physical therapist did everything possible to work on my extension but to no avail. I started going three times a week because of how little I had progressed. My knee would simply not straighten all the way. We tried electrical stimulation therapy, massage therapy, and dynamic splint to straighten my knee and regain my extension.

During this time, I hated physical therapy. I cried nearly every session because of how much pain and frustration I was experiencing. It felt so unfair that I had suffered such a serious injury and now was facing an atypically long recovery. It was hard to watch other ACL patients come in for their physical therapy sessions because many of us had surgery around the same time but they were so far ahead of me in their recovery. I was struggling to lift my leg and walk unassisted while they were learning how to run and jump again.

Eventually, 3 months after my first knee surgery, it became clear that I would need a second one. I got a second MRI which confirmed a scar tissue mass in my knee that was inhibiting my range of motion. In February of 2021, I underwent a second surgery to remove scar tissue from my knee. I reentered physical therapy and progressed quickly. I was soon running, jumping, and pivoting in physical therapy but I did not regain my extension.

Muttathil will continue her physical therapy after undergoing a surgery to improve her knee extension. (Courtesy of Kiran Muttathil)

In the year since my second knee surgery, little has changed in terms of my knee extension. Even though I was able to return for part of the high school field hockey season and play indoor hockey for my club team, the second surgery was not successful in fixing my lack of extension and I will be having a third surgery in just 2 weeks to try and fix it again. I will likely be in physical therapy for several months after this surgery as well.

While I’m grateful for the progress I’ve made in physical therapy and the care I’ve been shown by my physical therapists, physical therapy has been a permanent source of frustration in my life for the past year and a half. It is truly demoralizing to exhaust yourself multiple times a week in physical therapy for 15 consecutive months and still feel as though you’ll never recover from your injury.