Physical Therapy Guide to Lateral Collateral Ligament Sprain and Injury
A lateral collateral ligament sprain occurs when the ligament on the outer side of the knee is overstretched. Collateral ligament knee injuries make up about 25% of severe knee injuries in the United States. They most often occur in adults aged 20 to 34 years and 55 to 65 years. LCL sprains mainly happen during sporting activities, including contact and noncontact sports. They affect women and men equally. Physical therapists treat people with LCL sprains to reduce pain, swelling, stiffness, and any related weakness in the knee or lower extremity.
What Are Lateral Collateral Ligament Injuries?
The LCL is a thick, strong band of tissue that connects the thighbone to the shinbone. It is located on the outer side of the knee. It helps keep the knee joint stable. It is one of several ligaments that support the knee. The LCL can be injured if the knee is hit on the inner side, which pushes the knee outward. An LCL injury also can occur if the knee straightens too quickly or forcefully (hyperextends), causing stress on the outer side of the knee. Changing direction quickly while running or turning sharply with your foot planted on the ground can cause an LCL injury. There are three types of LCL injuries:
- Sprain (an overstretched ligament).
- Partial tear.
- Complete tear.
How Does It Feel?
With an LCL sprain or injury, you may feel:
- Swelling on the outside of the knee.
- Pain on the outside of the knee.
- Tenderness on the outside of the knee.
- A feeling that the knee is locking, catching, buckling, or giving way during movement.
The pain of an LCL sprain or injury may cause you to limp.
How Is It Diagnosed?
If you see a physical therapist first, they will conduct a thorough evaluation that includes your health history. Your physical therapist also will ask you detailed questions about your injury, such as:
- How and when did you notice the pain?
- Did you feel pain or hear a “pop” when you injured your leg?
- Did you turn your leg with your foot planted on the ground?
- Did you change direction quickly while running?
- Did your knee straighten out very quickly?
- Did you receive a direct hit to the leg while your foot was planted on the ground?
- Did you see swelling around the knee in the first two to three hours following the injury?
- Does your knee feel like it is locking, catching, buckling, or giving way when you try to use it?
Your physical therapist will perform tests to help determine the likelihood that you have an LCL sprain. They will gently press on the outer side of your knee to see if it is painful. They also will press on the inner side of the knee to see if that causes pain on the outer side. They may use other tests to determine if there is an injury to other parts of your knee and will watch how you walk.
Your physical therapist may team with an orthopedic doctor or other health care provider. An X-ray or other imaging tests may be done to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other damage to your knee, including fracture.
An LCL sprain rarely requires surgery. If you have a partial LCL tear that fails to heal, or if the tear is severe, surgery may be needed.
How Can a Physical Therapist Help?
Your physical therapist will design a treatment program and work with you to speed your recovery from an LCL sprain. This program will include exercises that you can do at home. Physical therapy will help you return to your normal lifestyle and activities. The time it takes to heal an LCL sprain varies with each person.
First 24 to 48 Hours
During the first 24 to 48 hours following the sprain, your physical therapist may advise you to:
- Rest the area by using crutches or a brace.
- Avoid walking or any activity that causes pain.
- Apply ice packs to the area for 15 to 20 minutes every two hours.
- Consult with a physician for further services, such as medication or diagnostic tests.
Your physical therapist will work with you over time to:
Reduce pain and swelling. Your physical therapist may use different treatments and technologies to control and reduce your pain and swelling. These may include ice, heat, ultrasound, electrical stimulation, taping, exercises, and hands-on therapy.
Improve motion. Your physical therapist will select activities and treatments to help restore normal movement in your knee and leg. These might begin with gentle “passive” motions that your physical therapist performs for your leg and knee joint. You will learn and progress to active exercises and stretches that you do yourself.
Improve flexibility. Your physical therapist will determine if your leg muscles are tight. They will teach you how to stretch them to improve flexibility and reduce stress on your knee.
Improve strength. Specific exercises will aid healing at each stage of recovery. Your physical therapist will choose the right exercises and equipment for your condition. Doing them will help to steadily restore your strength and agility. These may include using:
- Cuff weights.
- Elastic bands.
- Weightlifting equipment.
- Cardio equipment (such as treadmills or stationary bicycles).
Improve balance and agility. Regaining your sense of balance is important after an injury. For athletes, restoring agility (the ability to move quickly and easily) also is important. Your physical therapist will teach you exercises to improve your balance and agility skills.
Speed recovery time. Your physical therapist will use their training and experience to choose the best treatments and exercises for you. They will help you heal, return to your normal lifestyle, and safely reach your goals faster than you are likely to do on your own.
Return to activities. Your physical therapist will discuss your goals with you and use them to set your work, sport, and homelife recovery goals. Your treatment program will help you reach those goals in the safest, fastest, and most effective way possible. Your physical therapist will help you achieve your goals by teaching you:
- Specific exercises.
- Work-retraining activities.
- Sport-specific techniques and drills.
If Surgery Is Necessary
Surgery is extremely rare in cases of LCL sprains. However, if you have an LCL tear or injury to other parts of your knee at the same time, you may need additional treatment that might include surgery. After surgery you will follow a recovery program over several weeks guided by your physical therapist. They will help you minimize pain, regain motion, strength, and agility, and return to your activities in the safest and fastest manner possible.