The medial collateral ligament, or MCL, is a ligament on the inside of your knee, which runs from your thighbone to your shinbone, and it has a variety of functions.
It helps keep your shinbone and knee stable, and, along with the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), it allows your knee to rotate. Your MCL is a very important ligament—one of its main functions is to prevent your leg from extending too far in the wrong direction—but it can also become easily damaged.
If too much force is applied from the outside of your knee, the MCL can stretch or even tear, resulting in MCL pain as well as a number of secondary symptoms.
What Is a Torn MCL?
Your MCL is very sensitive, and it can tear by way of either trauma or repetitive movements, both of which can put pressure and stress on the ligament. There are two types of tears which are possible: a partial tear, which is less severe; or a complete tear, which is when the ligament is completely separated.
When your MCL tears, the result is pain in your leg, primarily around your lower leg and knee. Torn MCLs are serious injuries and can take a long time to recover, as the ligament has to heal and reattach. If your MCL has a complete tear, you will also unlikely be able to move your leg normally or walk properly.
What Causes MCL Pain?
MCL pain is usually caused by direct trauma to the knee. When your knee receives a blow on its outer side, it gets pushed inwards. This can stretch your MCL, often leading to tears. Conversely, a blow that hits your inner knee can also cause a ligament tear, but to your ACL, though these injuries are less common, as it’s less likely for your inner knee to be hit.
It’s also possible for your MCL to become injured from repeated stress. Your MCL can become weakened and stretched, just like an elastic band, from overuse. Repeated movements or stresses can end up leading to MCL injuries. In this case, any simple thing could push your MCL to its breaking point, causing an injury. For instance, you could get sudden MCL pain after running.
Who Is at Risk for MCL Pain?
Anyone can experience MCL pain, though athletes are at a greater risk simply because of the nature of their profession. Here are some factors that will increase your risk of sustaining this injury.
- Playing soccer: It’s very common for MCL injuries to occur due to a soccer ball hitting the knee.
- Playing contact sports: While soccer most commonly causes MCL injuries, any sport or athletic activity that involves potential hits or trauma to the knee can cause an MCL tear, including football, rugby, and hockey.
- Playing sports that involve sudden movements: Sports such as skiing, basketball, lacrosse, badminton, and tennis can all result in MCL tears or sprains.
- Repeated stress: MCL injuries can be caused by stress as a result of repetitive movements, such as running, jogging, dancing, or similar activities. MCL pain with running isn’t as common as with contact sports, but it can occur.
Symptoms of an MCL Injury
There are many symptoms that can come with an MCL injury, including:
- Pain around the inside or side of your knee, ranging from mild to severe;
- Stiffness or swelling around your knee;
- Tenderness or sensitivity around your inner knee;
- The feeling that your knee will catch, lock, or give way;
- Difficulty moving your knee;
- Locking of your knee when you move; and
- Difficulty walking or putting pressure on the injured leg.
Note that pain at the front of your kneecap is likely due to another ligament tear than an MCL injury.
Can You Sprain Your MCL?
MCL tears are fairly common injuries. However, it’s also possible to injure your MCL without completely or even partially tearing it. You can easily sprain your MCL, resulting in many of the same symptoms as a complete tear. MCL sprains can occur as a result of anything which causes the ligament to be suddenly stretched, twisted, or pulled. While trauma can often cause a complete tear, a sprain may be more likely to result from smaller causes, such as sudden movements or from repeated stress. You may notice MCL pain with no swelling, which could mean you have a milder sprain rather than a severe or complete tear of the ligament. The good news is that if you have a MCL sprain without any tearing, you’re likely to recover much quicker.
How Long Does it Take to Recover from a Sprained MCL?
The time it takes to recover from a MCL injury can vary. More severe injuries will take longer to heal, while mild injuries can clear up very quickly. Of course, this assumes that you are taking steps to heal your injury. For MCL pain relief and recovery, it’s important to reduce inflammation in the knee and ligament, as well as immobilize your knee so that it can stabilize and heal.
If you have a mild MCL injury, which could be a sprain or minor tearing, it’s possible for your pain to clear up in anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks with treatment. Usually, treatment will involve icing and resting your knee, and keeping it elevated.
For more severe injuries, MCL pain treatment usually lasts for six weeks, and can take even longer depending on how serious the injury is. Treatment for these injuries can involve wearing a hinged brace or cast, regularly icing the knee, taking pain relievers, performing rehabilitative exercises, and—in rare cases—undergoing surgery.
How Is MCL Pain Diagnosed?
Doctors will diagnose your MCL injury based on a physical examination and your medical history. They will ask about what caused your injury, as well as the symptoms you are experiencing. Your doctor will also examine your knee, looking for signs of swelling and checking your mobility and range of motion. Your doctor may use X-rays or MRI scans to diagnose your injury, but in many cases they will be able to diagnose your injury based on only a physical examination.
Sometimes, what you believe to be MCL pain could be another condition or ligament injury, so it’s important to see your doctor and receive a proper diagnosis. Your doctor may ask for specific details about your injury, such as whether you have MCL pain after sitting, to help rule out other conditions.
Treating MCL Pain
There are a variety of treatments that can help you find relief from your MCL pain and speed up the healing process.
The most important MCL pain treatment is rest—not the sleeping kind of rest, but rather rest for your injured knee. For 72 hours after your injury, you should try to rest your knee as much as possible. Lying down with your knee in an elevated position can help relieve pain. Sometimes, a hinged brace or cast, and possibly the use of crutches, will be necessary to immobilize your knee and allow it to heal properly.
To recover from MCL pain, it’s important to relieve inflammation. Icing your knee can help reduce inflammation and swelling, as well as relieve some pain. Using ice can also help speed up the recovery process. Use ice packs—or even better, crushed ice—throughout the day, for about 15 to 20 minutes at a time, and wait an hour in between icing applications. Try not to use “blue” ice, i.e., chemical cold products.
Doctors may prescribe medication to help you manage your MCL pain or inflammation. Pain relievers will reduce pain, while anti-inflammatory medications can also provide relief. Always ask about the side effects before taking any medication and consider the positives versus the negatives.
4. Natural Topical Treatments
An anti-inflammatory topical treatment may help you reduce some of the swelling and inflammation associated with MCL injuries. A traditional, natural treatment for swelling is an egg yolk/turmeric paste, which is believed to help with joint, bone, or muscle injuries. All this requires is mixing one egg yolk with two tablespoons of turmeric. The paste can then be directly applied to your skin and covered in a gauze. This may reduce some swelling and inflammation.
5. Epsom Salt Baths
Epsom salt baths are known for their anti-inflammatory effects. They can ease joint and muscle pain, as well as reduce swelling. Taking a daily Epsom salt bath will help you recover more quickly from MCL pain.
6. Castor Oil Massages
Castor oil has long been used as a medicine for healing joint pain. It is believed to improve circulation, reduce inflammation, and ease pain. You can gently massage the injured area using castor oil, which may help speed up recovery. However, remember not to apply too much pressure to your injured MCL.
How Long Does it Take to Heal from an MCL Injury?
The recovery time for MCL pain varies depending on the severity of the injury. There are three grades of MCL injury:
- Grade 1: This grade typically includes mild sprains and pain, and recovery is in as little as a few days to a couple of weeks.
- Grade 2: MCL injuries in this grade typically involve more severe tearing of the ligament and swelling of the knee, can take up to a month to recover.
- Grade 3: A completely torn MCL is considered a grade 3 injury. These can take six weeks or longer to heal with treatment.
These recovery times are based on the assumption that you are doing the proper treatment for your injury. If you are not, MCL injuries can persist or even worsen. Some MCL injuries may require surgery, although this is rare.
Exercises for MCL Pain
There are also rehabilitative exercises that can help heal your MCL. In fact, a good exercise routine is essential not only to avoid muscle wasting while you rest your injured leg, but to help you regain full mobility and strength.
Once pain allows, you should begin doing mobility exercises, which involve stretches and movements to increase flexibility, maintain joint mobility, and loosen tension. Both heel slides and flexion extension exercises are helpful.
As your pain begins to subside, you can begin adding muscle-strengthening leg exercises into your routine. These can include calf raises, lunges, half squats, leg curls, leg presses, and step-ups. However, it’s important to avoid exercises which involve sudden changes in direction, as that’s the kind of movement that may have caused the MCL injury in the first place. Stick with stationary muscular exercises.
Many of these exercises can be done using a hinged leg brace, ensuring that your knee remains immobilized. As you continue to recover from your MCL injury, you can add in more exercises—eventually you will return to your regular level of activity.
Complications of MCL Pain
Most of the time, you’ll make a full recovery from your MCL injury. You can expect to have no lingering problems or issues, and you’ll regain full mobility in your knee. However, in some circumstances complications can arise from MCL injuries. For instance, some severe grade 3 MCL injuries will not heal properly on their own. Problems can occur during the recovery process for these complete tears, resulting in chronic MCL pain and injury. In these situations, surgery is often needed. On top of that, surgery itself can also cause some complications and secondary issues, including:
- Stiffness of the knee
- Instability of the knee
- Lingering pain—this can indicate that the surgery was not successful
Risk Factors of MCL Injuries
MCL injuries can be caused by a variety of things, but the biggest risk factors are as follows:
- Trauma to the outer knee, including hits, blows, or sudden pressure;
- Sudden changes in the duration or frequency of exercise;
- Sudden changes in the intensity of exercise;
- Making sudden movements, particularly to the side;
- Performing repetitive physical activities which stress the MCL, such as in tennis;
- Wearing improper or poorly fitted footwear; and
- Not resting or seeking medical help after feeling pain in your knee.
All of these things can greatly increase your chances of developing MCL injuries.
Preventing MCL Pain
There is no way to entirely avoid your chances of getting an MCL sprain or tear. As long as you remain active, MCL injuries are always a risk. However, there are some steps you can take to lower that risk, such as:
- Avoiding sudden movements when possible
- Avoiding sudden increases in intensity or duration of sports or physical activities
- Never overdoing your exercise—always slowly build up
- Wearing good athletic shoes that have lateral support, as improper footwear can often lead to injuries.
It’s also a good idea to stretch your legs before exercising to loosen your limbs and increase the flexibility of your muscles and joints. Perform knee hugs, lunges, and squats to prevent MCL pain from occurring.
MCL pain can be unpleasant and irritating, but most of the time you can expect it to heal within six weeks or so. As long as you follow the proper treatment methods, MCL pain usually clears up and your knee will return to normal. Reducing inflammation is key. Using ice, natural treatments, and rest, you can return to normal fairly quickly.
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