Our knees are the most commonly injured joints in our bodies. Sportspeople, in particular, are extremely prone to suffering a knee injury at least once during their sporting life. Ligament damage forms the bulk of all sports injuries to knees, and it’s not hard to see why – each knee has four of them! We have two cruciate and two collateral ligaments in each knee, helping to connect our knees to the bones in our upper and lower legs. Collateral ligament injuries happen when one of the two ligaments – the medial (inside) or lateral (outside) – is stretched or torn.
Our medial collateral ligament is found on the inner side of the knee and helps stop our knee from buckling or collapsing inwards. The lateral collateral ligament connects the femur (thigh bone) to the fibula (the smaller bone in our lower leg). It controls the sideways movement of our knee and helps brace it against unusual movement.
What Are The Symptoms Of Collateral Ligament Injuries?
Collateral ligament injuries are commonly classified into three categories – Grade 1 (mild), Grade 2 (moderate) and Grade 3 (severe). The symptoms you might experience differ according to what category your particular injury falls into.
Grade 1: Your ligaments have stretched, but not torn. There might only be mild pain and a little swelling, but care should still be taken, as a mild sprain can increase the risk of a repeat, or more serious, injury.
Grade 2: There is a partial tear of the ligaments. Bruising and swelling of the knee are common symptoms with this kind of injury, and using your knee is both painful and difficult. You might feel as though your knee is about to give way.
Grade 3: This is a complete tear of the ligament, causing swelling and, sometimes, bleeding under the skin. Your knee feels very unstable, to the point where you are unable to put weight on it for fear of it giving way. Strangely enough, you might not experience much pain with this type of injury, as all the pain fibres have been torn. Alternatively, you might feel severe pain initially, which then quickly subsides.
Causes Of Collateral Ligament Injuries
Most collateral ligament injuries are caused one of two ways – either by twisting your knee in an unnatural and severe way or from being hit very hard on the outside or inside of your knee. These injuries usually happen when the lower part of your leg is forced sideways – either towards your other knee (medially) or away from it (laterally). When this happens, the weight of your body puts unnatural and awkward pressure on your whole leg.
The medial collateral ligament is commonly injured when this force causes the medial part of the knee to hinge open, while the lateral collateral ligament is more likely to be injured when the knee is forced to hinge too far outward. It can also be injured if your knee hyperextends (snaps too far backwards).
Who Is Most At Risk Of Collateral Ligament Injuries?
Injuries to the collateral ligaments are very common, particularly in those who play sports that involve a lot of fast, side-to-side and/or rotational movement. Skiers, basketball players and soccer players, for example, often experience this type of injury. But anyone who plays a contact sport, or one requiring a lot of pivoting, shifting and quick directional changes is at risk. Runners, too, can experience collateral ligament injuries, especially if they often run on surfaces where there is an increased chance of slipping or falling.
How To Prevent Collateral Ligament Injuries
Not all injuries are preventable, as many are caused by accident or trauma, but there are still things you can do to reduce your risk of picking up a collateral ligament injury.
- Targeted exercise – strength, power and balance exercises can help minimise this type of injury. Focus on your thigh and hip muscles. Try a combination of lateral squats, knee hugs, and forward and backward lunges.
- Rest when tired – this sounds simple, but many sports people are guilty of exercising when tired. Often in this case, not paying attention due to fatigue results in injury.
- Wear the right shoes – if your sport requires shoes or boots with studs, make sure they’re not worn down. If you play basketball, you need shoes with proper lateral support.
- Do it right – make sure that when you do any kind of exercise (including walking) you use the proper technique and body alignment.
Do you have a collateral knee injury? Dr Baba, Health in Motion’s experienced and compassionate sports medicine physician and orthopaedic surgeon, can help. Call today to make an appointment.