Medial Collateral Ligament Sprain
Your medial collateral ligament (MCL) is the knee ligament on the medial (inner) side of your knee connecting the medial femoral condyle and the medial tibial condyle. It is one of four major knee ligaments that help to stabilise the knee joint. It is a flat band of tough fibrous connective tissue composed of long, stringy collagen molecules.
The primary function of the MCL is to resist valgus force, which occurs if the tibia/foot is forced outwards to the knee.
What Causes MCL Sprain?
The MCL is injured when the (valgus) force is too high for the ligament to resist and the ligament overstretches. This overstretch can occur through a sharp change in direction, twisting the knee with a planted foot, landing wrong from a jump, or the most common a blunt force hit to the knee, such as in football tackle. The incident usually needs to happen at speed. Muscle weakness or incoordination predispose you to a ligament sprain or tear.
How Serious is a Sprained MCL?
The severity and symptoms of a knee ligament sprain depend on stretching or tearing the knee ligament. You may notice an audible snap or tearing sound at the time of your ligament injury.
In a mild, Grade I MCL sprain, the knee ligament has a slight stretch, but they don’t tear. Although the knee joint may not hurt or swell very much, a mild ligament sprain can increase a repeat injury risk.
With a moderate Grade II MCL sprain, the knee ligament tears partially. Knee swelling and bruising are common, and knee joint use is usually painful and challenging. You may have some complaints of instability or a feeling of the knee giving way.
With a severe Grade III MCL sprain, the ligament tears completely, causing swelling and sometimes bleeding under the skin. As a result, the joint is unstable and can be difficult to bear weight. You may have a feeling of the knee giving way. Often there will be no pain or severe pain that subsides quickly following a grade 3 tear as all of the pain fibres are torn at the time of injury. Other structures are at risk of injury with these more severe tears, including the meniscus or ACL.
What Does an MCL Sprain Feel Like?
There will be tenderness over the ligament site, possible swelling and pain with knee ligament stress tests.
How is an MCL Injury Diagnosed?
On examination, your physiotherapist will look for signs of ligament injury. They will also perform MCL stress tests. MRI may also diagnose a knee ligament injury and look at other surrounding structures for combination injuries.
What is the Treatment for an MCL Injury?
Depending on the grade of injury, you can start to feel better within days to just a few weeks of the damage. Your physiotherapy treatment will aim to:
- Reduce pain and inflammation.
- Normalise joint range of motion.
- Strengthen your knee: esp quadriceps (esp VMO) and hamstrings.
- Strengthen your lower limb: calves, hip and pelvis muscles.
- Improve patellofemoral (knee cap) alignment
- Normalise your muscle lengths
- Improve your proprioception, agility and balance
- Improve your technique and function, e.g. walking, running, squatting, hopping and landing.
- Guide return to sports activities and exercises
- Minimise your chance of re-injury.
However, we strongly suggest that you discuss your knee injury after a thorough examination from a knee injury specialist such as a sports physiotherapist, sports physician or knee surgeon.
How Long Does It Take To Recover From A Sprained MCL?
Treatment of an MCL injury varies depending on its severity and whether there are other combination injuries.
Grade I sprains usually heal within a few weeks. Maximal ligament strength will occur after six weeks when the collagen fibres have matured. Resting from painful activity, icing the injury, and some anti-inflammatory medications are useful. Physiotherapy will help to hasten the healing process via electrical modalities, massage, strengthening and joint exercises to guide the direction that the ligament fibres heal. This ligament healing helps to prevent a future tear.
When a Grade II sprain occurs, use of a weight-bearing brace or some supportive taping is commonplace in early treatment. This support helps to ease the pain and avoid stretching of the healing ligament. After a grade II injury, you can usually return to activity once the joint is stable, and you are no longer having pain. Ligament recovery may take a minimum of six weeks. Physiotherapy helps to hasten the healing process via electrical modalities, massage, strengthening and joint exercises to guide the direction that the ligament fibres heal. Ligament healing helps to prevent a future tear and quickly return you to your pre-injury status.
When a Grade III injury occurs, you usually wear a hinged knee brace, locked into extension, and use crutches for 1-2 weeks to protect the damage from weight-bearing stresses. As pain resolves, your knee brace can be unlocked to allow movement as tolerated. The aim is to allow for ligament healing and gradually return to normal activities. These injuries are most successfully treated via physiotherapy and may not return to their full level of activity for 3 to 4 months. All Grade III injuries rehabilitate under the guidance of your physiotherapist and knee specialist.
How to Prevent Recurrence of MCL Sprain?
A knee strengthening, agility and proprioceptive training program is the best way to reduce your chance of a knee ligament sprain. Pre-mature return to high-risk activities such as sport should take place with your physiotherapist or surgeon.
Knee MCL Ligament Surgery
Most MCL injuries resolve well with conservative management. However, surgery may occur if there is significant ligament disruption, e.g. Grade III. Surgery may also be required if there are substantial combination injuries involving the ACL or meniscus. In these cases, a knee specialist will guide the need for surgery.
Risks of surgery include infection, persistent instability and pain, stiffness, and difficulty returning to your previous level of activity. The good news is that better than 90% of patients have no complications post-surgery.
Post-operative knee rehabilitation is one of the most important aspects of knee surgery. The most successful and quickest outcomes result from the guidance and supervision of an experienced sports physiotherapist.
Your physiotherapy rehabilitation following knee surgery focuses on restoring full knee motion, strength, power and endurance. You’ll also require balance, proprioception and agility retraining to individualise your rehabilitation towards your specific sporting or functional needs.
As mentioned earlier, your sports physiotherapist is an expert in this field. We suggest you contact them for the best advice in your circumstances.
Your physiotherapist will guide your return to sport. It is highly variable and depends upon on your specific knee ligament injury and the demands of your competition.
Common Causes - Knee Pain
Knee pain can have many origins from local injury, referred pain, biomechanical issues and systemic issues. While knee pain can appear simple to the untrained eye, a thorough assessment is often required to ascertain the origin of your symptoms. The good news is that once a definitive diagnosis is determined, most knee pain quickly resolves with the correct treatment and rehabilitation.
Knee Ligament Injuries
- Knee Ligament Injuries
- ACL Injury
- PCL Injury
- MCL Sprain
- LCL Sprain
- Posterolateral Corner Injury
- Superior Tibiofibular Joint Sprain
Knee Meniscus Injuries
- Chondromalacia Patella
- Fat Pad Syndrome
- Patella Dislocation
- Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
- Osgood Schlatter’s Disease
- Sinding Larsen Johansson Syndrome
Knee Tendon Injuries
- Corked Thigh
- Thigh Muscle Strain
- Hamstring Strain
- ITB Syndrome
- Popliteus Syndrome
- Muscle Strain (Muscle Pain)
- DOMS – Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness
Children’s Knee Conditions
Other Knee-Related Conditions
- Runner’s Knee
- Plica Syndrome
- Stress Fracture
- Overuse Injuries
- Restless Legs Syndrome
For specific information regarding your knee pain, please seek the assistance of a healthcare professional with a particular interest in knee condition, such as your physiotherapist.