MCL sprain is a fairly common sports injury. The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is a band of tissue that connects the thighbone (femur) to the shinbone (tibia) on the inside part of the knee. The MCL prevents the knee from buckling inward, and is the ligament most commonly injured in sports. The term “sprain” means an injured ligament. MCL is usually the result of a direct blow to the outside part of the knee commonly seen in contact sports such as football, soccer or rugby.
Sprains are classified into three grades:
- First-Degree Sprain: ligament is mildly stretched and painful
- Second-Degree Sprain: ligament is severely stretched and partially torn
- Third-Degree Sprain: ligament is fully torn and not able to support the knee
MCL Sprain Symptoms
The most common symptom of an MCL sprain is pain and tenderness on the inner side of the knee. Swelling and bruising at the site of the injury may occur, sometimes as late as 24 hours after the injury. These symptoms may cause the knee to feel stiff, or cause limping while walking. In the most severe cases, the knee may feel unstable like it is going to give out.
Recovery and Healing
The MCL usually heals on its own with appropriate treatment. Initial treatment consists of nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (Ibuprofen, Motrin, Aleve, Advil) and ice to relieve pain and reduce swelling in the knee. Ice should be applied for 10 to 15 minutes every 2-3 hours as needed.
Full weight may be placed on the injured leg, however crutches are recommended if the injured knee causes limping, or the feeling that the knee is going to give out. A hinged knee brace may also be recommended to allow for knee range of motion while protecting the MCL from the same sideways force that caused the injury. A knee immobilizer is never recommended, as that will result in increased stiffness and a prolonged recovery.
Range of motion, stretching and strengthening exercises may be carried out at home, although referral to a physical therapist or athletic trainer is recommended. Rehabilitation of MCL sprains generally concentrates on reducing knee swelling, regaining range of motion, regaining muscle control and strength, and a short period of bracing.
The recovery from an MCL sprain usually depends on the severity of the injury. Grade 1 injuries usually get better in 1 to 3 weeks with home treatment. Grade 2 injuries typically require a hinged knee brace and may take up to one month to heal. Grade 3 injuries may require limited weight bearing for 4 to 6 weeks and wearing a hinged knee brace for several months. Rarely, and only in very severe MCL injuries is orthopedic surgery recommended.
Preventing MCL Sprain
Several preventive measures are effective in avoiding MCL sprains. Appropriately warming up and stretching before practice and competition is important, as is maintaining appropriate conditioning that include thigh, leg, and knee flexibility, muscle strength and endurance, and cardiovascular fitness training. Functional knee braces have been shown to be effective in preventing injury, especially re-injury.
For immediate treatment of sports injury, visit an ortho urgent care clinic.