The medial collateral ligament (MCL) provides stability to the knee joint and prevents dangerous movement. If you’ve recently suffered an impact or fall and are experiencing knee problems, you may have an MCL injury. MCL tears can be confusing, but in this article we will guide you through the basics of an MCL tear and the differences between injury grades. We will also explain the symptoms and available treatments so you can start recovering.
An injury to the MCL can cause serious pain and inhibit our ability to walk, move, and participate in sports.
The medial collateral ligament is on the inner (or medial) side of the knee. It connects the shinbone and thighbone, while providing stability and preventing damaging joint movement.
An MCL tear can also be referred to as an MCL sprain, and the injury is graded based on severity. The grade system is used to identify and treat different levels of MCL sprains or tears.
Grade 1 MCL Tear
A grade 1 MCL tear is the least serious. It indicates that the MCL has been stretched, but not seriously torn. More precisely, it occurs when under 10% of the fibers in the ligament have been torn. This grade is also called a mild MCL tear.
Grade 2 MCL Tear
Also known as a partial MCL tear, a grade 2 MCL tear is more severe than a grade 1 injury. It is not a complete tear, but it is still serious. A grade 2 tear often leads to significant instability in the knee.
Grade 3 MCL Tear
Unsurprisingly, a grade 3 MCL tear is the most severe. It involves the complete tearing of the ligament. The knee may feel like it is going to “give out” entirely.
Difference Between ACL and MCL Tear
ACL and MCL are similar injuries, affecting different ligaments in the knee. ( Image Reference)
The symptoms of ACL and MCL tears are similar, but these are distinct injuries.
Like the MCL, the ACL is one of four key ligaments that stabilize the knee. It is found in the middle part of the knee, as opposed to the inner part, where the MCL is located.
Due to this positioning, an ACL tear is most commonly caused by an impact to the side of the knee or the shin, which causes the knee joint to rotate or extend dangerously. An MCL tear is generally caused by an impact to the outer part of the knee, which causes the inner knee joint to stretch.
When an ACL tear occurs, there is usually a loud popping sound. An MCL injury does not cause this noise.
What Causes an MCL Injury?
An MCL injury occurs when the ligament is stretched or torn. The thick band of fibers is designed to prevent inward bending and to stabilize the knee. It is, however, vulnerable to damage, particularly during sports.
How do you tear your MCL?
Most people who tear their MCL do so during contact sports. A direct blow or impact to the outside of the knee can tear the ligament. This is particularly likely if the knee is slightly bent prior to contact.
The risk of tearing an MCL is still present even in non-contact sports due to repeated stops, starts and turns.
A sudden twisting of the knee can also cause the MCL to stretch or tear. Less commonly, the MCL can be injured in a fall, especially if your leg splays out beneath you at an odd angle. For this reason, older people can also be vulnerable to MCL injuries.
ACL and MCL injuries are in some ways similar; both can be caused by an intense impact, though generally to slightly different parts of the knee or leg.
MCL Tear Symptoms
The feeling of an MCL tear differs from person to person and based on severity. The main symptoms of an MCL tear include pain, instability, and swelling.
In the immediate aftermath of an impact to the knee, most people feel pain mixed with shock. However, the symptoms can worsen within a few hours. It can quickly become very difficult. if not impossible, to put any weight on the leg.
For a mild or grade 1 tear, you may describe the feeling as tenderness or soreness, rather than real pain. You may not notice any swelling in the area. For more severe tears, either at grade 2 or 3, the knee will be very unstable. In addition to swelling, you may see bruising.
Signs of MCL Tear
Among the most common MCL tear symptoms and signs are:
Tenderness on the inner part of the knee
Medial knee pain
Swelling around the knee
A feeling that the knee is unstable or unsteady
Locking of the knee joint
Bruising around the knee
The inability to walk or put pressure on the leg or knee
MCL Tear Test
In most cases, an MCL tear diagnosis is quick and straightforward, but occasionally additional tests may be necessary.
To diagnose whether you have an MCL tear (or to determine whether you have torn your MCL or ACL), your doctor may carry out a number of simple tests.
Often it is possible to assess the injury from a straightforward examination of the knee. The doctor will carefully bend and apply pressure to the knee and assess your range of movement. He or she will also check for symptoms, such as swelling.
In some cases, the doctor may order further tests to rule out other knee conditions or injuries. An X-ray may be used to check for a bone injury.
An MRI scan may also be considered. The scanners can be slightly intimidating due to their large size and loud noises. An MRI is particularly effective at detecting and diagnosing MCL tears. MRI scans are totally painless and safe. However, people with certain types of pacemakers cannot undergo this type of scan.
MCL Tear Treatment
A knee brace is crucial to treating any MCL tear, and hinged knee braces provide the greatest amount of support and stabilization. ( See Product)
The immediate concern after an MCL tear is to reduce the pain and keep the knee stabilized.
It is important to rest the knee, keeping it immobilized and avoiding putting pressure on it. Applying an ice pack to the knee can also help. Apply the ice pack for fifteen minutes at a time. Anti-inflammatory painkillers are also recommended to reduce swelling.
To avoid putting pressure and weight on the leg, people with minor MCL tears may wish to use crutches for a short period. Hinged knee braces for MCL sprains can also aid in recovery by compressing the knee.
MCL Tear Rehab
Physical therapy can improve the strength of the muscles and gently restore safe movement to the knee. Your physiotherapist will recommend and guide you in carrying out gentle exercises.
Getting back to full health and movement is particularly important for athletes, who will be itching to get back to playing their sport.
MCL Tear Recovery Exercises
A number of mobility and strengthening exercises can assist you with your MCL tear rehabilitation. To restore or maintain full mobility of the joint, your physiotherapist may provide you with mobility exercises, as soon as it is comfortable and safe to begin rehab. You may hear these referred to as range-of-motion, or ROM, exercises.
Quad muscle contractions are one of the most straightforward exercises to begin your road to recovery. With your leg outstretched, gently contract the muscles above knee. Carefully raising the straightened leg a few inches from the floor is another useful MCL sprain recovery exercise.
More intense exercises like lunges and squats can be performed as you progress, but these place notable strain on the knee. For this reason, it is crucial to follow the advice and assistance of your physiotherapist and not to push yourself beyond your limits.
MCL Tear Surgery
Surgery for an MCL injury is not very common, as non-surgical treatment is usually sufficient. However, surgery can be required in some instances, especially where there are additional injuries to the knee.
Prior to surgical intervention, the surgeon may use arthroscopy, which involves inserting a tiny camera through an incision in the knee, to assess the injury. If the ligament cannot repair itself, the surgeon may stitch or staple it back together.
Knee Brace for MCL Tear
A knee brace is crucial for preventing the lateral movement that can further damage your knee. ( See Product)
Knee braces are a popular choice for anyone suffering from an MCL injury. They provide extra stability to the knee, which is particularly helpful when MCL tears have led to a weakening in the area.
If you plan to return to sports or athletics and want to use physical therapy to get there, it is important to do this safely. For this reason, a knee brace, which provides much-needed support, is a good investment.
MCL injury recovery time varies from person to person based on a number of factors, such as age and fitness level, as well as the type of MCL injury sustained.
Grade 1 Recovery Time
If you have suffered a grade 1 MCL tear, recovery time is usually under two weeks. In fact, some people return to sports or exercise in one week.
Grade 2 Recovery Time
Grade 2 MCL tears take a little longer to heal. One month is average, though this depends on your personal circumstances. Some people make a full recovery from a grade 2 injury in two to three weeks.
Grade 3 Recovery Time
The more serious grade 3 MCL sprains take longer to recover from. You may anticipate a recovery time of about eight weeks for these types of MCL tears. If you have also suffered ACL damage, recovery could take significantly longer.
MCL Surgery Recovery Time
If you undergo MCL surgery, the recovery time may be between two and three months. During this time, it is crucial to avoid relapse or further knee injuries. If you are an athlete, this unfortunately means you need to sit out for a while to protect yourself from long-term damage.
Remember not to push or overstretch your joint. Though the temptation to race through recovery is strong, overdoing it can cause additional problems and ultimately extend your recovery time.
Preventing Further Problems Following an MCL Tear
Following these tips can help you to avoid further problems or injury.
First and foremost, heed the advice of your doctor or physiotherapist. They will assess the extent of your injury and provide treatment options and physical therapy. Avoid sports and vigorous activity until you are fully recovered to avoid worsening the MCL tear.
Regularly wearing a brace during sporting activities is also recommended. This will help prevent additional injury. Wearing a good knee brace also keeps your awareness on the recent injury so you avoid making plays or actions that risk your knee health.
MCL Tear Recovery
Be kind to your knees, especially if you’ve sustained an MCL tear. It may take some time, but if you treat the injury properly, follow the advice of your doctor or physiotherapist, and don’t overdo it, you will soon be back to the sports and activities you love.
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