The most common knee injuries orthopedic specialists see in many types of sports are ligament sprains, ligament tears, meniscus tears, dislocations and fractures. These types of injuries typically occur in younger athletes as a result of sports-related contact, falls, twisting or pivoting motions.
However, these injuries can also occur in non-athletes—also often as a result of falls, twisting or trauma that could occur at any time. Whether you’re an athlete or not, here’s what you need to know about knee ligament injuries.
How the knee works
The knee is made up of multiple components: bone, cartilage that lines the end of bones, meniscus (the knees’ “shock absorber”), ligaments that connect the bones together, and tendons which connect muscles to bones.
There are four major ligaments in the knee that connect the bones and provide stability:
- ACL (anterior cruciate ligament)
- PCL (posterior cruciate ligament)
- MCL (medial collateral ligament)
- LCL (lateral collateral ligament)
The ACL is the most commonly injured knee ligament and is usually sprained or torn due to twisting. Football, basketball, soccer, and skiing have the highest risk of ACL injuries. Patients typically report feeling a pop at the time of injury and are unable to continue play.
The key to avoiding injury? Strengthening your knees
With the increase in sports activities in young athletes, there has been a big focus on ACL injury prevention. While it is impossible to completely prevent ligament tears, there are steps you can take to help minimize injury. It all starts with increasing strength the right way, especially for athletes.
1. Get in alignment.
Learning to jump and land with proper alignment will help protect the knee. Strengthening the inner quadriceps, gluteal and core muscles helps keep the knees in proper alignment, avoiding undue burden on knee ligaments. You want to keep your hips over your knees and ankles.
2. Build a strong body.
Athlete or average Joe, general strength training helps overall bone and joint health by helping build strength and balance and taking the load off the cartilage in the joints.
3. Women, beware.
Female athletes are at much higher risk of knee ligament injury, so they should focus on correct jumping and landing patterns, as well as strength training.
4. Build in time to rest.
Allowing your body the appropriate recovery days can avoid fatigue and prevent injury.
Finding the right fix for your knee ligament injury
If you think you may have a knee ligament injury, the first step is to use the tried-and-true RICE approach: rest, ice, compression and elevation. If you have continued pain and instability, it is best to see a sports medicine specialist who may recommend further imaging with x-rays or an MRI to determine the extent of the injury.
The treatment for knee ligament injuries depends on multiple factors, including age, which ligament is injured, desired activity level and knee stability. It may include bracing, anti-inflammatory medications, physical therapy and surgery.
Knee pain? Download our free treatment guide.
Knee ligament repair and recovery
Ligament repair with surgery is the best course of action for people with complete ligament tears that result in instability of the knee. People often describe a feeling of the knee giving way or not trusting the knee.
Surgery involves replacing the torn ligament with a graft of healthy tendon that is typically taken from the patient to hold the knee together. If surgery is warranted, ligament repair is an outpatient procedure, meaning you can go home the same day. For tips on what to expect during knee surgery recovery, read this.
How’s your knee health? Take this short quiz to find out if it’s time to see a doctor.
About the author
Sheena Black, MD, is an orthopedic sports medicine surgeon on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White Medical Center – McKinney, Baylor University Medical Center and Baylor Scott & White Sports Medicine at The Star in Frisco. Dr. Black specializes in sports medicine and arthroscopic procedures of the hip, knee and shoulder.