Your knee is a complex system of ligaments, tendons, bones, and cartilage that make up the largest joint in the body.
The medial collateral ligament (MCL) keeps your knee from bending inward. But, it is susceptible to injury, especially during activities that involve bending, twisting, or a quick change of direction.
Read on to learn more about MCL injuries and treatment.
What is an MCL?
The MCL — found on the inside of the knee — connects the femur (thighbone) to the tibia (shinbone). Its job is to stabilise side-to-side movements.
“The MCL’s function is to prevent what we call valgus stress,” says Volker Musahl, MD, chief, Division of Sports Medicine, UPMC. “That can happen when the tibia bone moves away from your body and the femur bone moves toward your body.”
What Causes MCL Injuries?
An MCL injury is the most common type of knee ligament injury. It occurs when force is applied to the outside of the knee and moves it sideways.
MCL injuries are most common in sports — including hurling, skiing, and rugby — when direct force to the outside of the knee pushes it inward. They also can occur when your knee twists violently inward while it’s bent.
What is the difference between the MCL and the ACL?
As mentioned, the MCL is on the inside of the knee and helps with side-to-side movements. The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, is located on the front of the knee. The ACL keeps the knee steady and prevents it from turning too much. ACL injuries occur when there is a sudden twist of the knee.
Types of MCL Injuries
MCL injuries —classified as sprains — have different levels of severity.
- Grade I sprains occur when the MCL is stretched but not torn. It still provides stability to the knee.
- Grade II sprains occur when there is a partial tear of the ligament. The MCL is loose and some instability is possible.
- Grade III sprains occur when there is a complete tear of the MCL. When you have a complete tear, the knee joint is unstable.
Symptoms and Diagnosis of MCL Injuries
The severity of symptoms people experience from an MCL injury can vary depending on its grade. Common symptoms include:
- A “popping” sound or sensation in the knee at the time of the injury
- Pain on the inside of your knee
- Unstable feeling in the knee
- Noticeable looseness when you walk
To diagnose an MCL injury, the consultant will ask how the injury occurred and assess your symptoms. A physical examination will help the consultant determine the stability of the ligaments. Imaging tests, such as x-rays and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans, can help with the diagnosis.
MCL Treatment and Recovery
Treatment depends on the severity of the MCL injury.
Most MCL injuries don’t require surgery. The consultant will likely recommend nonsurgical treatment including:
- The R.I.C.E. method (rest, ice, compression, elevation)
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, for pain
- Wearing a knee brace for a short time
- Using crutches
A severe MCL tear may need a surgical fix. An orthopaedic consultant can reattach the torn ligament or reconstruct it using tissue grafted from elsewhere in the body.
Recovery time from an MCL injury depends on the severity of the injury. Recovery from a grade 1 sprain can take a few weeks, while severe tears can take three or four months.
Recovery often involves physiotherapy to regain strength and flexibility in the injured knee.
MCL Injury Prevention
MCL injuries can’t be fully prevented. Wearing a knee brace may help provide stability and lower the risk of an MCL injury. For competitive athletes, there is a risk of re-injuring the ligament or injuring the other knee.
One risk factor for an MCL injury involves the way you move and jump — the balance between your knees and other body parts like your feet and ankles. Working with a sports performance coach can help correct imbalances that may increase your risk for injury.
If you have a concern you think would benefit from a consultation at UPMC Sports Medicine at WIT Arena, make an appointment today by calling 051-376827.