The medial collateral ligament, or MCL, of the knee provides stability to the inner knee with weight bearing activities. It is most vulnerable to injury with high impact activities, sports, falls, and even tissue changes caused by aging. An MCL tear, also known as an MCL sprain, can leave your knee feeling stiff, sore, and out of commission. MCL exercises are one of the best treatment options for restoring knee function. Keep reading to learn more about exercise for an MCL tear.
Start gently with stretching and targeted non-weight bearing muscle strengthening. From there, work in more dynamic movements that challenge your knee and prepare it for getting back 100% to your normal activities. The following exercises are listed from easiest to hardest so that you can move your way down the list over time.
An acute knee injury will most likely require a formal period of rest, ranging from a few days to weeks to allow tissues to heal. One of the biggest concerns during this period of immobility is to maintain knee range of motion to prevent unnecessary stiffness. Outside of keeping up with pain free knee bending and straightening (knee flexion and extension), moving the patella, or kneecap, is an effective way to reduce inflammation and minimize the effects of decreased knee mobility by preventing adhesions.
This is a great technique to combine with other massage techniques for sore local muscles (see more below under the foam roller section).
When the knee is injured, the local muscles tend to tense up to prevent how much you can move the knee and provide some protection. The hamstrings often get very tight with knee pain and can aggravate your symptoms. Thus, some gentle stretching can feel great.
Additionally, other notoriously tight muscles include the calves and glutes. You can use your stretch strap or other stretching techniques to address these areas as well.
The glute muscles, located on the outside and back of the hips, play a pivotal role in providing knee stability; particularly to the medial knee where the MCL is located. Weakness or poor coordination of the glutes can lead to excessive strain on the inner knee. This exercise can help.
We just talked about how important glute strength and stability is for knee health and return to sport. The exercise we just reviewed above addresses the side glutes, while this one will address your largest glute muscle, the gluteus maximus. This muscle is built for providing power with daily moves and sports. Get started in restoring this power here.
Swelling and pain of the knee most often impacts the strength and coordination of the quadriceps muscles on the front of the thigh (anterior). Restoring proper quad strength and activation is important for the return of proper knee function with a significantly lower risk of knee injury. This exercise helps restore your confidence in the quad and the ability to properly activate it with activity.
Being able to stand on one leg without knee pain and good stability is an important step in finally returning to daily activities like walking and running. Plus, it helps in preparing the joint for higher level sports activities too.
At this point in your exercise program, there are a ton of other functional moves that require lateral knee stability that you should try as you’re comfortable. These include moves like squats, step ups, lunges, calf raises, cutting, changing directions, and other moves specific to your everyday life, sport, or hobby.
Having a few good tools at home can help keep you motivated and consistent with your exercise program. Consider adding the following equipment to your arsenal for knee recovery.
Don’t let poor flexibility affect your ability to stretch. Having a designated stretch strap can help you stretch your legs, such as the hamstrings, quads, and calves, without feeling like you’re going to strain your neck or back in the process of reaching your leg with your arms. There is a reason that stretch straps are so popular among yogis, because of the ease and comfort they can provide with your stretching routine- no matter what your level of flexibility is.
An exercise ball is such a versatile tool, and a must have specifically for athletes. The innate instability of a ball makes it a great option for returning to sports by preparing the knee and lower body for unpredictable moves. You can add an exercise ball to some of the exercises listed above as an additional challenge, such as bridges, squats, lunges, and more. Your physical therapist can also help you get creative in preparation for returning to sport.
It’s so easy to keep a resistance band around for your knee exercise program. You can throw it in your purse or even a pocket on the go, or bring it with you to a competition to warm up the legs. A resistance band is a great way to target specific muscle groups and add a new dimension of challenge with many different movements, such as squats, leg raises, and more. Plus, they’re low cost and a popular exercise tool of choice among physical therapists.
As discussed above with the single leg balance exercise, having the ability to safely balance through your injured leg is one of the important final steps in the recovery process. If you can’t balance without good knee stability, your risk of knee injury rises exponentially. Use of balance tools can help you prepare your knee for the unexpected.
Whether you’re using a traditional foam roller or vibrating foam roller, these tools can be a great way to keep sore and stiff muscles looser and more flexible. A roller can be used to apply pressure to larger muscle groups, which is ideal for the legs with the hamstrings, calves, quads, and glutes. Additionally, you can use it to promote better posture (lying on it vertically) or even utilize it as a way to challenge your balance.
When completing your exercise program, there is a chance that you will experience a mild increase in swelling, stiffness and pain temporarily. Try utilizing ice and other pain relieving techniques to improve your recovery time. Bonus points for adding compression and elevation to your knee while you ice for 20 minutes as needed after your exercise routine.
The use of a knee brace can help boost your recovery process when utilized correctly. Soft neoprene braces can be used to increase your sensation to the knee while you work on better knee coordination. Plus, as you return to higher level activities you may find you need a little extra lateral support of the knee with a sturdier brace. Talk to your doctor or physical therapist to discuss what options might be best for you.
What you can and can’t do following an MCL tear will largely depend on your symptoms and the severity of the injury. Plus, what you can do will change as your tissue improves and your tolerance for activity slowly returns. You should avoid any movement that elicits an increase in knee pain or swelling. Here are some specific things to avoid:
If other ligaments or the meniscus are involved, like the ACL, there may be other higher level moves you want to avoid at first too.
With the right mindset in place, your knee program will yield great benefits. As you get started with your exercise program, keep these basic tips in mind to maximize your efforts.
Deciding to forgo an exercise routine puts your knee at a significantly higher risk of knee reinjury and future problems down the road like arthritis. A well designed exercise program is essential for getting your knee joint back to its previous level of function following an MCL tear. MCL exercises aim at two things.
Voice any concerns to your doctor when necessary so they can help guide you in your program. Of course, get in touch with your physical therapist or orthopedic doctor for medical advice as soon as possible if your symptoms get suddenly worse or are affecting your quality of life.
Sources:SHOP MCL Products
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