Collateral Ligament Tears

Dr. Bryan Tan

MBBS (SINGAPORE) MMED (ORTHO) FRCS ED (ORTH)

Collateral ligament tears are one of the most common knee injuries, especially among athletes. These injuries involve damage to the ligaments located on either side of the knee joint, known as the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the lateral collateral ligament (LCL).

What Is A Collateral Ligament Tear?

Collateral ligament tears are common knee injuries that usually occur during sports. The collateral ligaments connect the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone) and help to stabilise the knee joint. 

The collateral ligaments play a critical role in maintaining knee stability. They act as strong, fibrous bands that connect the femur (thigh bone) to the tibia (shin bone), limiting excessive side-to-side movement of the joint. However, when a force pushes the knee inwards or outwards beyond its normal range of motion, a tear in one or both collateral ligaments can occur.

Causes Of Collateral Ligament Tear

Collateral ligament tears most frequently occur during activities that involve a planted foot and a force impacting the knee from the side. This scenario can happen in various ways: 

  • Direct Blows: A direct hit to the outer side of the knee, such as during a football tackle or a collision in sports, can force the knee inwards and potentially tear the MCL. On the contrary, a blow to the inner knee can damage the LCL.
  • Sudden Changes in Direction: Rapid pivoting or cutting manoeuvres, common in sports like basketball or soccer, can stress the collateral ligaments beyond their capacity, leading to tears, especially if the foot is planted firmly during the movement.
  • Awkward Landings: Landing awkwardly from a jump or fall, with the force concentrated on one side of the knee, can also cause collateral ligament tears. 

What are the symptoms?

Collateral ligament tears can present with a range of symptoms, often depending on the severity of the tear. Here are some common signs:

  • Pain: This is the most prevalent symptom, typically localised to the inner (medial collateral ligament) or outer (lateral collateral ligament) aspect of the knee, depending on the injured ligament. The pain can range from mild discomfort to a sharp, debilitating sensation.
  • Popping Sound or Sensation: Some patients may experience a popping sound or feeling at the moment of injury, indicating a potential ligament tear.
  • Instability: In more severe tears, the knee joint may feel loose or unstable, especially when attempting to bear weight. This can lead to a sensation of the knee “giving way” during activities.
  • Swelling: Swelling can occur in the area surrounding the injured ligament, but it is usually not as significant as with other knee injuries.
  • Tenderness: The area around the affected ligament will likely be tender to the touch, with discomfort intensifying upon palpation.
  • Limited Mobility: Depending on the severity, some individuals may experience difficulty bending or fully straightening the knee due to pain or instability.
  • Limited Weight-Bearing Ability: While some individuals with collateral ligament tears can still stand and bear weight, it’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily rule out a tear. The ability to bear weight can vary depending on the severity of the injury.

How Is Collateral Ligament Tear Diagnosed?

To pinpoint the cause of knee pain and confirm a potential collateral ligament tear, a doctor will likely follow a multi-step approach:

  • Physical Examination: This initial step involves a thorough examination of the knee. The doctor will assess the patient’s range of motion by checking how easily they can bend and straighten their knee. They’ll also evaluate joint stability by applying gentle pressure in different directions. Additionally, they’ll check for tenderness and swelling around the knee joint, particularly focusing on the inner or outer areas where the collateral ligaments reside.
  • Imaging Tests: While a physical examination provides clues, imaging tests might be necessary to confirm the diagnosis and determine the severity of the tear. X-rays, while not directly showing ligament damage, can help rule out bone fractures that might accompany a ligament injury. In some cases, an MRI scan might be recommended. This imaging technique offers detailed views of soft tissues like ligaments, allowing for a clearer picture of the tear and its extent. 
​​Are your collateral ligament tears affecting your quality of life, and your ability to perform everyday activities such as working, playing sports and wearing your clothes?
Dr. Bryan will assess your symptoms in detail before recommending the right treatment plan for your condition.

How Is Collateral Ligament Tear Treated?

Collateral ligament tears are treatable, although the specific approach depends on the severity of the injury. Typically, there are two treatment options, non-surgical management and surgical intervention.

For mild tears, a non-surgical approach is often the preferred course of treatment. This focuses on promoting healing, reducing inflammation, and regaining stability in the knee joint. Here are some key components:

  • Rest: Limiting activities that aggravate the tear allows the ligament to heal.
  • RICE Protocol (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation): This simple yet effective method helps reduce inflammation and swelling. Apply ice packs for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Additionally, compression with an elastic bandage and elevating the knee above the heart can also promote healing.
  • Immobilisation: Wearing a hinged knee brace for 6 to 8 weeks can provide support and stability, allowing the ligament to heal without excessive strain.
  • Physical Therapy: A personalised rehabilitation program designed by a physical therapist is crucial. This will focus on strengthening the muscles surrounding the knee joint, improving balance and proprioception (your body’s awareness of joint position), and restoring a normal range of motion. 

In severe tears, particularly those involving complete ruptures or ligament detachments from bone, surgery might be necessary. Below are some reasons why surgery might be considered:

  • Significant instability: If the tear causes excessive knee joint looseness and makes it difficult to perform daily activities or participate in sports safely, surgery might be needed to repair the ligament and restore stability.
  • Multiple ligament damage: Surgery might also be necessary if other major knee ligaments like the ACL or PCL are also injured alongside the collateral ligament. 

Anatomy/ Pathology

The collateral ligaments are found on either side of the knee, connecting the femur to the tibia. The knee is a hinged joint designed to flex and extend only in one plane. The collateral ligaments prevent the knee from opening up side to side. Forces causing the leg to deviate either outwards or inwards can cause the collateral ligaments to rupture.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can Collateral Ligament Tears Heal?
Can I still walk with a torn collateral ligament?
Will I need physical therapy?
Are there any long-term complications from collateral ligament tears?
Can I return to sports after an injury?

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