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Ligament injuries to the knee

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Ligament injuries to the knee happen when there is an impact or twisting motion on the knee.

Whether it's a sports injury, a fall or a car accident, ligament injuries to the knee require the specialized care provided by Marshfield Clinic's orthopedic surgeons.

Your recovery time depends on the extent of the injury and the treatment needed.

What are knee ligaments?

There are 4 major ligaments in the knee. Ligaments are elastic bands of tissue that connect bones to each other and provide stability and strength to the joint. The 4 main ligaments in the knee connect the femur (thighbone) to the tibia (shin bone), and include:

Anatomy of the knee
Click image to enlarge

  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The ligament, located in the center of the knee, that controls rotation and forward movement of the tibia (shin bone).

  • Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). The ligament, located in the back of the knee, that controls backward movement of the tibia (shin bone).

  • Medial collateral ligament (MCL). The ligament that gives stability to the inner knee.

  • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL). The ligament that gives stability to the outer knee.

How are cruciate ligaments injured?

The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the most common ligaments to be injured. The ACL is often stretched and/or torn during a sudden twisting motion (when the feet stay planted one way, but the knees turn the other way). Skiing, basketball, and football are sports that have a higher risk of ACL injuries.

The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) is also a common ligament to become injured in the knee. However, the PCL injury usually occurs with sudden, direct impact, such as in a car accident or during a football tackle.

What are the symptoms of a cruciate ligament injury?

Often, a cruciate ligament injury does not cause pain. Instead, the person may hear a popping sound as the injury occurs, followed by the leg buckling when trying to stand on it, and swelling. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently.

The symptoms of a cruciate ligament injury may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your doctor for a diagnosis.

How are collateral ligaments injured?

The medial collateral ligament is injured more often than the lateral collateral ligament. Stretch and tear injuries to the collateral ligaments are usually caused by a blow to the outer side of the knee, such as when playing hockey or football.

What are the symptoms of a collateral ligament injury?

Similar to cruciate ligament injuries, an injury to the collateral ligament causes the knee to pop and buckle, causing pain and swelling.

The symptoms of a collateral ligament injury may look like other conditions or medical problems. Always see your doctor for a diagnosis.

How is a knee ligament injury diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnostic procedures for a knee ligament injury may include:

  • X-ray. A diagnostic test that uses invisible electromagnetic energy beams to produce images of internal tissues, bones, and organs onto film to rule out an injury to bone instead of, or in addition to, a ligament injury.

  • Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). A diagnostic procedure that uses a combination of large magnets, radiofrequencies, and a computer to produce detailed images of organs and structures within the body; can often determine damage or disease in bones and a surrounding ligament or muscle.

  • Arthroscopy. A minimally-invasive diagnostic and treatment procedure used for conditions of a joint. This procedure uses a small, lighted, optic tube (arthroscope) that is inserted into the joint through a small incision in the joint. Images of the inside of the joint are projected onto a screen; used to evaluate any degenerative and/or arthritic changes in the joint; to detect bone diseases and tumors; to determine the cause of bone pain and inflammation.

Treatment for knee ligament injuries

Treatment may include:

  • Medicaine such as ibuprofen

  • Muscle-strengthening exercises

  • Protective knee brace (for use during exercise)

  • Ice pack application (to reduce swelling)

  • Surgery

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Contact us for care

If this is a medical emergency, call 911.

Call: 1-866-520-2510

(Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. - 5 p.m.)

What Do You Know About Knee Injury?

Your knees are complex joints and that makes them vulnerable to injury. Learning how to prevent knee injuries and treating them if they occur can help you stay active at work and play. Test your knowledge of knees by taking this quiz, based on information from the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons.

1. Ligaments connect muscles to bones.
2. The knee has 7 ligaments.
3. You may hear a popping sound when a knee ligament is injured.
4. The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is most often injured by lifting something heavy.
5. Which test is NOT used to diagnose a knee ligament injury?
6. A knee ligament can be repaired with a surgery called:
7. The ACL can be rebuilt with a piece of your own knee or leg tendon.

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