It doesn't take a basketball or football collision to cause a ligament injury of the knee- although you may prefer to tell such a tale. Simply stretching, stumbling or twisting in an odd way may be all it takes to do the damage. Medial cruciate ligament (MCL) injuries are the most common ligament injuries, and they can also result from overuse. Your recovery will be affected by the type of knee injury and your treatment. And lately, research suggests surgery may not be your best option.

"In most cases, MCL injuries can be treated non-operatively, with a combination of rehabilitation and bracing," says Ryan G. Miyamoto, M.D., sports medicine fellow at the Steadman-Hawkins Clinic in Vail, Colorado. "Surgery becomes an option when there are multiple injuries present in the knee. However, the additional injuries are not always identified."

Symptoms of Ligament Injury

You may suffer an isolated MCL injury, or it may be accompanied by damage to your anterior posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), or meniscus (cartilage in the knee joint). According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS), there are several symptoms associated with ligament injuries:

  • pain accompanied by swelling that sets in steadily and quickly after your injury
  • knee stiffness from the swelling that impairs walking
  • knee instability - feeling like it will buckle or give out

Treatment of a Ligament Injury

First, a doctor will physically examine your knee. You'll also undergo imaging tests such as X-rays and an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging), although these tests may not always show the extent of the damage especially if it's been three months since your ligament injury, explains the AAOS.

As Miyamoto discusses bracing the knee (or immobilizing it) will be a go-to treatment in the early stages after your ligament injury. Other non-invasive therapies include:

  • RICE - rest, ice, compression and elevation is standard for these types of injuries. Don't apply ice to your skin without a barrier (such as a cloth) or for more than 20 minutes.
  • Over-the-counter or prescription medications to fight inflammation.
  • Low-intensity ultrasound therapy, or electrotherapy.
  • Range-of-motion and strengthening exercises.

If surgery is required, it will involve reconstructing or repairing the ligament, usually through an arthroscopic procedure to minimize complications and aid recovery from the ligament injury.

Rehabilitation is an essential part of recovery after a ligament injury. It helps to stabilize and strengthen your knee, and improve motor function. Recovery time varies from person to person, and will be affected by the type of injury and how well you adhere to your rehabilitation program.

The AAOS estimates that a full recovery from ligament injury will take about six to 12 months. For the best results, Miyamoto advises that an orthopaedic surgeon oversees your treatment and recovery.


American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, National Institutes of Health, AAOS press release "Treating Ligament Injuries