What is an MCL injury?
The MCL ligament is a strong band of tissue which connects the thighbone (femur) to your shinbone (tibia). It plays a key part in stabilizing the knee, and this is why you may experience a feeling of your knee being loose when you have an MCL injury.
An MCL injury occurs when there is a tear or sprain of the medial collateral ligament (MCL). The MCL ligament is located on the inner edge of the knee and can be prone to injury, particularly during sports where there is a hard impact to the side of the knee.
Common signs and symptoms
Severe pain and hearing a loud “pop” or experiencing a popping sensation in the knee is a common sign of an MCL injury. Most people will also suffer symptoms such as:
- A feeling of the knee moving to the side
- Rapid swelling of the knee
- A reduced range of motion
- Difficulty with weight bearing and a feeling of instability
Common causes of MCL injuries
A hard hit or impact to the side of the knee can cause the MCL ligament to strain or tear. Activities that involve side to side movements or high impacts, such as football, rugby and hockey are some of the most likely to cause an injury to the MCL.
You can also sustain an MCL injury if your knee is twisted or bent out too far.
Your risk factors for developing an injury may be higher if you:
- Wear badly fitting or inappropriate sports shoes
- Participate in certain sports
- Have poor conditioning or a lack of strength in the knee
- Use defective sports equipment
- Play on artificial grass
Diagnosing an MCL injury
In some cases, an MCL injury may be considered mild, with the ligament being stretched but still intact. In more serious cases, the ligament will be partially or completely torn.
To reach a diagnosis, your doctor will examine your knee to see how badly the MCL has been stretched or torn. To establish this, they may send you for one or more imaging tests (scans):
- X-ray – to detect fractures
- Stress X-ray – to help identify a tear
- MRI scan – to look at soft tissue damage in more detail, particularly to tendons, cartilage, muscles and ligaments
Once you doctor has established the extent of your injury, they will decide on an appropriate treatment plan for you.
Treating an MCL injury
Mild MCL injuries can heal on their own within a few weeks or months. If you have a mild injury, your doctor may recommend some over the counter medication and self-care techniques.
The R.I.C.E (rest, ice, compression, elevation) approach will help your ligament to recover:
- Try to avoid any activities that cause pain or might exacerbate your injury.
- Apply ice to the ankle for 15 to 20 minutes and repeat every two to three hours during the day. You can also submerge your knee in an ice bath. If you have vascular disease, diabetes or decreased sensation you should consult your doctor before applying ice.
- Use an elastic bandage or wear a knee brace to compress the knee and slow down swelling. Be careful not to bandage too tightly, and start the bandaging at the further point from your heart.
- Elevating your knee above the level of your heart will help to avoid fluid accumulation and will reduce swelling. This is especially important at night.
Over the counter painkillers are usually strong enough to help with pain relief. Good options are ibuprofen (Brufen) and acetaminophen (Panadol) taken according to dosage instructions.
More severe injuries may require physiotherapy treatment to aid healing. Your doctor will be able to refer you to a physiotherapist who will prescribe exercises for you to follow. It is important that you carry out the advice you have been given in order to aid a successful recovery.
It is unusual for MCL injuries to require surgical treatment but it might be necessary if the injury is more complicated. This may be the case when another area of the knee has also been damaged.
The type of surgery you require will depend on the exact diagnosis you have been given and any other factors involved. Your doctor will make a decision on this and guide you on the next steps of your treatment plan.
Recovering after an MCL injury
Depending on how well your injury has healed, you may be able to resume normal activities and sports within a few weeks or months.
Your doctor will advise you when it is safe to do so, and may advise you to wear a brace or elastic bandage for additional support during sports.