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Knee ligament injuries

Knee ligament injuries can cause pain, instability, and interfere with sports and activities, but can be resolved with expert care.

Knee ligament injuries

Knee ligament injuries can cause pain, instability, and interfere with sports and activities, but can be resolved with expert care.

Image of person massaging their knee

    Key points about knee ligament injuries

    • Knee ligaments are the short bands of elastic tissue that holds the knee together. There are 4 main ligaments in each knee.
    • Knee ligament injuries can be caused by trauma, such as a car accident. Or they can be caused by sports injuries.
    • The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) is one of the most common ligaments to be injured.
    • Treatment may include medicine, muscle-strengthening exercises, a knee brace, or surgery.

    What is a knee ligament injury?

    Knee ligaments are the short bands of tough, flexible connective tissue that hold the knee together. Knee ligament injuries can be caused by trauma, such as a car accident. Or they can be caused by sports injuries. An example is a twisting knee injury in basketball or skiing.

    The knee has 4 major ligaments. Ligaments connect bones to each other. They give the joint stability and strength. The 4 knee ligaments connect the thighbone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia). They are:

    • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). This ligament is in the center of the knee. It controls rotation and forward movement of the shin bone.
    • Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). This ligament is in the back of the knee. It controls backward movement of the shin bone.
    • Medial collateral ligament (MCL). This ligament gives stability to the inner knee.
    • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL). This ligament gives stability to the outer knee.

    What are the symptoms of a knee ligament injury?

    Cruciate injury

    A cruciate ligament injury often causes pain. Often you may hear a popping sound when the injury happens. Then your buckles when you try to stand on it. The knee also swells. You also are not able to move your knee as you normally would. You may also pain along the joint and pain when walking. The symptoms of a cruciate ligament injury may seem like other health conditions. Always see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

    Collateral ligament injury

    An injury to the collateral ligament also causes the knee to pop and buckle. It also causes pain and swelling. Often you will have pain at the sides of the knee and swelling over the injury site. If it is an MCL injury, the pain is on the inside of the knee. An LCL injury may cause pain on the outside of the knee. The knee will also feel unstable, like it is going to give way.

    When should I contact my doctor?

    Seek care immediately if:

    • You're unable to walk or move your leg.
    • You have an obvious deformity of the knee or leg.

    Call your doctor if:

    • Your knee locks or catches or makes a clicking, popping or grinding sound.
    • Your knee is painful and/or swollen.
    • Your knee feels weak or buckles.
    • You are unable to fully bend or straighten your knee.
    • You have lost trust in your knee to perform activities without problems.

    How to make an appointment

    To have your knee injury evaluated, schedule an appointment with a sports medicine doctor or primary care physician. They can make a diagnosis and, if needed, refer you to a hip and knee orthopedic surgeon for further care. 

    Knee ligament injury care at UW Medicine

    Choosing UW Medicine for your orthopedic and sports medicine care means getting access to some of the most experienced physicians and surgeons in the country, many of whom have spent years caring for elite and high-level athletes who have ligament and meniscus injuries. The UW Medicine team helps care for athletes from the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Huskies and many youth sports leagues. 

    Treatment plans for most knee injuries rely on making an accurate diagnosis with a focus on managing pain and rehabilitation to regain function. Surgery may also be necessary to lead to full, functional recovery. Our goal is to restore and optimize the function of your knee so you can get back to the activities you enjoy.

    Knee and other sports injuries can be evaluated at any of our sports medicine clinics or orthopedic surgery locations across the Puget Sound region. Physicians and surgeons at the Sports Medicine Center at Husky Stadium are specifically trained in treating elite and high-level athletes of all ages. Most UW Medicine physicians train the next generation of doctors, so you can expect to receive care from doctors who have a wealth of experience and also drive future research and education within sports medicine.

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    What causes a knee ligament injury?

    Cruciate ligaments

    The ACL is one of the most common ligaments to be injured. The ACL is often stretched or torn during a sudden twisting motion. This is when the feet stay planted one way, but the knees turn the other way. Slowing down while running or landing from a jump incorrectly can cause ACL injuries.  Skiing, basketball, and football are sports that have a higher risk for ACL injuries.

    The PCL is also a common ligament to become injured in the knee. But a PCL injury usually occurs with sudden, direct hit, such as in a car accident or during a football tackle.

    Collateral ligaments

    The MCL is injured more often than the LCL. Stretch and tear injuries to the collateral ligaments are usually caused by a blow to the outer side of the knee. This can happen when playing hockey or football.

    How is a knee ligament injury diagnosed?

    Your healthcare provider will ask you to have your health history and do a physical exam. You may also need one or more of these tests:

    • X-ray. This imaging test can rule out an injury to bone instead of a ligament injury. It uses energy beams to make images of internal tissues, bones, and organs on film.
    • MRI. This test uses large magnets, radio waves, and a computer to make detailed images of organs and structures within the body. It can often find damage or disease in bones and a surrounding ligament, tendon, or muscle.
    • Arthroscopy. This procedure is used to diagnose and treat joint problems. The healthcare provider uses a small, lighted tube (arthroscope) put into the joint through a small cut (incision). Images of the inside of the joint can be seen a screen. The procedure can assess joint problems, find bone diseases and tumors, and find the cause of bone pain and inflammation.

    How is a knee ligament injury treated?

    Treatment will depend on your symptoms, age, and general health. It will also depend on how severe the condition is. Treatment may include:

    • Pain medicine such as ibuprofen
    • Muscle-strengthening exercises
    • Protective knee brace
    • Ice pack to ease swelling
    • Surgery
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