Knee Ligament Injuries & Tears

Ligament injuries and tears at a glance

  • The knee joint has four ligaments; tough, flexible fibers that link the bones together that provide stability and control movement. Injuries to these ligaments may occur during sports activities or in trauma, such as a blow to the knee.
  • Symptoms include intense pain, swelling, and a loud pop at the moment of injury. The knee joint may feel loose and unstable. It may be difficult to put weight on the affected leg.
  • Initial treatment for ligament injuries and tears includes use of the RICE protocol: rest, ice, compression, and elevation of the affected knee. For severe tears, reconstructive surgery may be necessary to reattach or reconstruct the damaged ligaments.

Causes of knee ligament injuries

Two of the ligaments in the knee joint are known as cruciate ligaments. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) connect the thighbone to the larger bone of the lower leg (tibia) in the knee joint.

The other two knee joint ligaments are known as collateral ligaments. Collateral ligaments control the side-to-side movement of the knee. The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and the medial collateral ligament (MCL) connect the thighbone to the larger bone of the lower leg (tibia).

Mild ligament injuries, such as a knee sprain, involve stretching or minor tearing of some of the ligament fibers, while a severe ligament injury, such as a torn ACL, involves the complete tearing of the ligament fibers.

Knee ligament injuries or tears commonly occur during sports activities like soccer, football, skiing, and gymnastics. Overextending the knee, stopping suddenly when running, twisting the knee when the foot is planted, or getting hit on the knee can lead to ligament injuries or tears.

Multiple ligaments (cruciate and/or collateral) may be injured in a single traumatic event.

Symptoms of knee ligament injuries

Symptoms of a knee ligament injury include severe pain, swelling, and an audible popping or snapping noise at the time of the injury.

Bending or putting weight on the knee usually increases the intensity of the pain, although there will usually be pain even when the knee is at rest.

Depending on which type of ligament has been damaged, the pain symptoms may occur in different parts of the knee. If there is pain on the inner or outer portions of the knee, there may be damage to the collateral ligaments. If the pain is felt deep within the knee, there may be damage to the cruciate ligaments.

Treatment of knee ligament injuries

Immediately following a ligament injury or tear, follow the RICE protocol by resting the knee, applying ice to the injured area, wrap the knee in a compression bandage, and elevate the leg.

Taking over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicine may help reduce pain and swelling associated with the injury. A knee brace can help stabilize the joint after the injury. Talk to your pharmacist before purchasing anti-inflammatories as these medications may be contraindicated as they may interact with other medications and medical conditions.

Depending on the severity of the injury, a healthcare provider may recommend stretching and strengthening exercises to help to rehabilitate the knee.

In a severe collateral ligament injury, surgery may be necessary to reconnect the torn ligament.

Unfortunately, in a severe cruciate ligament injury, it is not possible to reconnect the torn ligaments. However, an orthopedic surgeon can perform reconstructive surgery to replace the damaged cruciate ligaments with tendons from another part of the body or donated ligaments.