The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is the largest and strongest of four major ligaments that are essential for the stability of the knee joint. It is named the MCL because it is located on the “medial” side (middle) of the knee joint. It is a “collateral ligament” because it connects the bottom of the femur (thigh bone) to the top of the tibia (shin bone). The MCL prevents excessive widening of the inside of the knee joint.
The MCL can be injured with a direct blow to the outside of the knee, or what is known as a “valgus force” injury. When the outside of the knee is struck, the outside of the joint buckles and causes the inside to widen and potentially over-stretches or tears the MCL.
Symptoms of an MCL injury include pain, swelling and sometimes bruising along the inside of the knee. Pain from an MCL injury can be reproduced by placing the knee in a “knock knee” position as this puts stress on the ligament.
Early treatment of MCL injuries involves the RICE regimen; Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation of the affected limb until swelling subsides. The knee loses strength and stability after an injury.
Aggressive physical therapy addressing the strength and stability of the knee and entire lower extremity are critical to get the patient “back on their feet” and prevent further injury.
Does an MCL Tear Ever Fully Heal?
Most MCL tears can fully recover. The question is more "when" and "how" than "if." Your doctor and physical therapist can devise a treatment plan around the severity of your MCL injury. It's important to receive the recommended care for your MCL tear; otherwise, you risk the knee being vulnerable to future injury.
Upon diagnosis, the tear is graded to indicate its severity. Grade 1 MCL tears may heal within a few weeks with minimal intervention. Grade 2 tears may require medication, rest, and physical therapy to facilitate full recovery within about 30 days. Grade 3 tears can take up to eight weeks for full recovery with proper physical therapy and other clinical intervention as needed.
Can Physical Therapy Help a Torn MCL?
Yes! The vast majority of MCL tears can improve significantly or heal completely with physical therapy. The goal of your treatment program is to restore stability, mobility, and full function. Care usually begins with a thorough assessment of the knee to establish the current level of damage and loss of stability and mobility. This enables us to design a customized treatment program aimed at reducing swelling and pain and then moving toward regaining the full range of motion of the knee.
Do I Need Physical Therapy for an MCL Sprain?
You might not need physical therapy for an MCL sprain. Because the ligament is not torn, it may recover well with rest, ice, and bracing. That said, receiving physical therapy for a minor MCL sprain can help accelerate recovery and also strengthen the muscles around the joint to help reduce the risk of future injury due to instability.
Can you Rehab a Torn MCL without Surgery?
In most cases, it's possible to rehab a torn MCL using nonsurgical modalities. Your physical therapist may implement exercises, stretching, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, and other therapies to assist with optimal tissue recovery.
When Should I Start Physical Therapy after an MCL Tear?
The timing of your physical therapy after injury may depend on the grade of your tear. Initially, you may need to rest, ice, and brace to help the inflammation and swelling subside before we begin to strengthen and rehabilitate the area. You may need to restrict weight bearing for a few weeks and wear compression stockings if you have significant swelling and pain. Until the knee can tolerate more range of motion, a brace may help avoid twisting and pivoting motions that irritate the instability that is present.
The team at Cynergy Physical and Occupational Therapy has considerable experience working with knee injuries, including MCL sprains and tears. Your physical therapist will work with you and your doctor as needed to facilitate prompt care and optimal recovery.