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Knee ligament injuries occur when one or more of the ligaments in and around the knee joint are twisted (sprained) or torn (ruptured). Your knee ligaments are bands of tissue that hold the bones together, keeping your knee stable.
You can rupture a ligament partially (the ligament still stays intact) or completely (completely torn through).
There are two sets of ligaments in your knee:
Knee ligament injuries most commonly occur when you receive a blow to the knee, have a fall, make a sudden movement, or land awkwardly while playing sport. Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries are one of the most common types of knee ligament injury.
Most knee ligament injuries may heal on their own in time with self-care techniques and, sometimes, physiotherapy. However, surgery may be needed in some cases.
Knee ligament injuries tend to produce similar symptoms, regardless of the ligament injured. How severe your symptoms are may depend on how bad the injury is.
Symptoms of a knee ligament injury may include:
Each of the four knee ligaments can become injured in different ways.
ACL injuries are one of the most common knee injuries. They often happen when a person lands on their leg and quickly twists their knee in the opposite direction. This type of injury occurs most commonly when playing sports, such as football or basketball.
PCL injuries can happen in many ways. These include:
MCL injuries tend to happen if something hits the outer part of your leg while it is stretched out in front of you, such as during a football tackle. It can also happen when your knee twists outwards. MCL injuries can happen in almost any sport and at any age.
MCL injuries are most common in young adults aged 20 to 35 because they are most likely to engage in high-risk sports. However, older, less active adults can also develop MCL injuries, usually from a fall.
You are less likely to injure your LCL compared to your MCL. LCL injuries can be caused by a direct blow to the inner side of the knee. This can happen when one leg is stretched out in front of you without the other leg for protection, such as during a rugby or football tackle.
Your doctor may suspect a knee ligament injury after asking you about your symptoms, how you injured yourself, your medical history, and performing an examination of your knee.
Your doctor may also recommend some tests, such as:
If you have injured your knee, you should see your doctor who will be able to advise you on the best treatment. The treatment you need will often depend on how severe your injury is, your desired level of activity, and whether you have injured other parts of your knee. For less serious injuries, the following self-help techniques can be used at home initially to help treat the injury.
PRICE therapy for the first 48 - 72 hours involves:
Avoiding HARM for 72 hours after the injury. This involves avoiding:
Painkillers, such as paracetamol, can be used to help ease any pain.
Ibuprofen and other over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) can help relieve pain and may also limit inflammation and swelling. Some guidelines suggest you should avoid taking NSAIDs for the first 48 hours after the injury. This is because it is thought that NSAIDs may slow down the healing process. However, this is currently a theory that needs further research. At present, there is no conclusive evidence that proves that NSAIDs should not be taken soon after an injury.
It may not be safe to take NSAIDs if you have certain conditions (such as asthma, high blood pressure, kidney failure, indigestion or heart failure) or if you are allergic to NSAIDS. Always check with your doctor or pharmacist before taking new medicines after an injury.
Your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist to help you improve the strength of the muscles around your knee and the range of movement of your knee joint. They will be able to tailor an exercise programme for you to follow. The exact exercises and how often you do them will depend on the type of injury and how severe your injury is. In some cases, you may need a special brace to support your knee while your injury heals.
In some cases, your doctor may refer you to an orthopaedic surgeon for surgery. This usually involves a keyhole procedure to repair any ligament damage.
Surgery is more likely if:
The decision about whether or not surgery may be helpful depends on:
It may take time to make a full recovery after you have injured one of your knee ligaments.
How soon you recover will depend on:
Returning to sport or exercise too soon after a knee ligament injury can put you at risk of further injury. Always ask your doctor about when it is safe for you to start exercising or playing sport again after a knee ligament injury.
To find answers to any other health questions you might have, visit our Health A-Z.
Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.