Bones are held together by tissues known as ligaments. When these ligaments tear or overstretch, you get a sprain. A knee sprain, in particular, occurs when the ligaments connecting the thigh and shin bones are damaged. The knee joint includes four major ligaments:
- Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) – works together with Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) to provide stability to the knee from forces coming from the front and back. An ACL strain occurs when you are hyperextending your knee, stopping or changing directions abruptly, or due to an external force hitting the lower leg or the outside of the knee.
- Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL) – crosses with the ACL, creating an X pattern on your knee. Direct forces towards the front of the knee can injure the PCL. The chances of developing a PCL sprain are higher when playing football, basketball, or getting into an accident.
- Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) – provides internal support to the knee. Extreme twisting of the knee when wrestling, skiing, or playing basketball can damage this ligament.
- Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) – unlike the MCL, the LCL provides support to the outer side of the knee. Because of its position inside the knee, the LCL is the ligament least likely to get injured.
Symptoms of a sprained knee
Some symptoms are common regardless of the type of ligament that gets injured. Here are a few symptoms you may encounter when you sprain your knee:
- Muscle spasms
What you feel when you sprain your knee can sometimes vary, depending on the type of ligament injured. For instance, you may have noticed a popping sound when you injured your ACL. When the sprain occurs, you may also feel like your knee can no longer support your weight. If the back of your knee hurts, it could be a sign of a PCL sprain. With spraining your MCL or LCL, your knee may buckle in the opposite direction from the ligament.
Anybody can sprain a knee. However, there are situations where you can increase the chances of getting a knee sprain. This includes the following:
- Wearing the wrong type of footwear – athletes in different sports wear specific footwear for a reason. The shoes are designed to provide support in areas where it is needed the most. For instance, running shoes feature a thicker cushion as compared to tennis shoes. Even if you are not an athlete, wear the right footwear for your activity. Consider replacing your shoes more frequently if you are a professional athlete or constantly working out.
- Previous injury – a re-injury can occur if you did not give your body enough time to recuperate, heal, or recover. Any strenuous activity can strain that ligament, causing another injury.
- Playing certain types of sports – some types of physical activity can increase the chances of developing specific injuries. In the case of basketball and football, the jumps, sprints, and quick changes in direction can increase the risk for a sprain. However, this is not limited to full-contact sports. For instance, skiing professionals are also prone to knee sprains because of the twisting and turning moves they have to perform.
- Excess weight – added weight increases the strain on your joints and muscles. Overweight and obese individuals are more likely to develop sprains and other knee problems, even with regular activities, such as walking or using the stairs.
- Lack of exercise – exercise and a healthy lifestyle can strengthen your knees and enhance flexibility, reducing the chances of developing injuries. By working out or playing sports, you can strengthen the muscles and joints in the process.
When to see a knee specialist
Knee pain can sometimes occur when you perform more strenuous tasks than usual. In some cases, you can perform self-care and monitor the situation for a few days. However, if the following symptoms appear, schedule an appointment with a knee specialist:
- Significant pain and swelling
- The area around the affected joint feels warm and tender
- Redness around the knee
There are also situations when you need to go straight to a hospital. If the following symptoms occur, seek medical attention immediately:
- Hearing a pop during the injury
- Sudden swelling and feeling immense pain
- The joint appears deformed
- Your joint can no longer support your weight
Diagnosing a knee sprain
At the clinic or hospital, the doctor will check and examine the area for any bruising or swelling. You may also be asked to move it to check its range of movement and compare the results with your other leg.
During the examination, the doctor may ask you a series of questions about when the injury occurred. Provide as much detail as you can, such as if you heard a pop or which area of your knee hurts the most.
The doctor may conduct a series of tests on your injured knee to see if there are any broken bones, damaged ligaments, or tissues. Your sprain will then be graded according to severity. A grade 1 indicates an overstretched ligament. Partially torn ligaments result in a grade 2, while a fully torn one is a grade 3.
Treatment and pain management options
Depending on the results of your diagnosis, your doctor may prescribe or recommend several options to help treat and manage your knee pain. For minor sprains, the doctor may recommend following the RICE approach (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
Your doctor may also recommend exercises to help you with your recovery. This may include bending your knees, leg lifts, calf stretches, and weight training, among others.
For more serious injuries, such as a torn ligament, your doctor may schedule surgery. It may take several months before you can go back to your regular workout or routine. Regardless of the severity of your injury, follow your doctor’s recommendations to prevent another injury.
Do not hesitate to reach out to us if you have any further questions regarding knee sprains. We offer a wide range of services to help diagnose, treat, manage, and prevent another knee sprain so you can get back to your normal way of living.