Sports-Related Ligament Injuries

Staying active is important throughout life. Unfortunately, playing sports can bring forth the risk of injury. Ligament injuries can happen in any high-intensity sport that requires running and pivoting. They commonly occur in the knees and ankles but are possible in any joint in the body including the wrist, thumb, shoulder, neck and back.

What Is a Ligament Injury?

Ligaments are cords of tough, flexible fibrous tissue that connect bones together and provide support to a joint. While ligaments are extremely strong, an awkward stretch or twist can cause a strain injury. With enough force, they can be torn—the most severe ligament injury.

Strains vs. Sprains

Commonly confused, sprain and strain injuries cause very similar symptoms but are actually injuries to different components of tissues in a joint.

  • Sprains – Sprains are a stretch or tear of a ligament.
  • Strains – Strains are a twist, pull or tear of a muscle or tendon, commonly referred to as soft tissue. Tendons are the cords of tissue that connect muscles to bones.

Learn about soft tissue injuries.

What Are the Most Common Ligament Injuries?

Sprained Ankle

One of the most common sports injuries, an ankle sprain is a stretch, micro tear or complete tear to the ligaments on the outer side of the ankle.

Knee Ligament injuries

There are four ligaments that hold the bones of the knee together.

  • Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)
  • Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL)
  • Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL)
  • Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL)

ACL Tear

Common in soccer, football and basketball, an ACL injury is damage to the ligaments on the inside of the knee. The severity can range from a mild sprain to a full tear of the ligament(s). ACL tears frequently require surgery.

MCL or LCL Tear

A Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) or Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) injury is a sprain or tear of the inner or outer knee ligaments. It is usually a result of an injury that occurs while participating in an activity that puts a heavy strain on the knees, such as skiing.  Most MCL and LCL injuries will recover without surgery

PCL Tear

Injury to the PCL is the least common ligament injury in the knee and frequently occurs from direct trauma or fall on the knee.  Most PCL injuries will heal without surgery.

Elbow Ligament Injuries

The Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) is the most common injury in the elbow. This is also known as the Tommy John injury. Injuries most commonly occur in baseball from excessive pitching and can be acute or chronic injuries. Traumatic tears can also occur in falls or sports such as wrestling. The UCL is on the inside of the elbow and injury can be a mild sprain, partial tear or complete tear. Learn more about the elbow.

Shoulder Ligament Injuries

Shoulder ligaments are most commonly injured in dislocations of the ball and socket joint. These are generally forceful injuries and frequently require and emergency room visit to have the joint reduced (put back into place). A shoulder Separation involves the Acromioclavicular Joint (ACJ) which is the outer part of the collar bone and involves tearing of the ligaments that hold the joint together. Learn more about the shoulder.

Thumb ligament injuries

The most common injury is called a gamekeepers thumb and is a tear of the ligament between the base of the thumb and the wrist bones. These commonly occur during a fall when you’re holding something in your hand, such as a ski pole or the handlebars of a bike. Learn more about the hand.

What Are the Symptoms of a Ligament Injury?

Symptoms will vary depending on the severity of an injury to a tendon, but may include:

  • Pain to the area, often sudden and severe
  • A loud pop or snapping sound at the time of the injury
  • Swelling to the area of the injury
  • Looseness of the joint
  • Inability to move or put weight on the joint without pain
  • Spasms in the muscles surrounding the injury

Ligament injuries can be very painful similar to fractures and prompt evaluation is recommended. One of our physician providers can evaluate you and provide the best treatment plan for your injury.

How Are Ligament Injuries Treated?

Mild ligament injuries can be treated with non-surgical treatment such as the R.I.C.E. method (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) and over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication. Sometimes a brace or splint is needed for comfort and protection. Your doctor may also recommend physical therapy as part of your treatment plan.

Surgical Treatment

For severe strains or a tear to a ligament, a surgical procedure to repair the ligament may be required. Ligament surgery may consist of repairing or replacing the ligament. Sometimes a tendon graft is needed to hold the injured joint together. The tendon used may come from the injured person, known as an autograft, or may come from an organ donation, known as an allograft.

Following surgical repair, physical therapy is almost always recommended.

How Long is the Recovery Time Following a Ligament Injury?

For a sprain, the recovery time will depend on the severity of the injury but will usually take between two to eight weeks.

Rehabilitation and return to full function after a surgical repair of a torn ligament can take six to nine months.

Our orthopedic and sports medicine specialists will work with you to design a treatment plan that gradually increases motion and intensity.

How Can Ligament Injuries be Prevented?

No athlete wants to be sidelined with a ligament injury. A tear to a ligament may mean the end to a season or career. Luckily, there are some simple ways to prevent or reduce the likelihood of a tendon injury.

Body Preparation

This includes always stretching and warming up before activity and exercise and understanding proper body posture. It also includes never playing through a ligament injury. Even small damage to a ligament can quickly worsen with further stress.

Fortifying Ligament Health

All athletes should follow healthy nutritional and hydration habits to help strengthen joints and the ligaments that support them. Vegetables, lean proteins, nuts and legumes will all help to prevent a ligament injury.

Strength and Agility Training

The health of your ligaments depends heavily on the strength and flexibility of the surrounding muscle groups. Working to improve balance, agility, flexibility and core strength will help to avoid the need for compensatory movements that can lead to injury.

Banner Health’s orthopedic and sports medicine physicians and rehabilitation therapists can help you to recover quickly and safely from a ligament injury. We know how important it is for you to get back in the game, and we can help you get there.