The MCL Sprain Protocol

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Spraining the medial collateral ligament, or MCL, in the knee is a common injury among trained athletes and weekend warriors alike. This can be a painful injury, but with the proper diagnosis and treatment, you can make a complete recovery within a few months.


MCL sprains commonly have one of two causes. The first possibility is a major impact to the outside of the knee. The MCL, on the inner part of the knee, cannot withstand this force and partly or completely tears. The second possible cause is related to body positioning. When your foot is planted on the ground and you suddenly twist away from that foot, the abnormal shifting can cause a sprain in your MCL.


Your doctor will diagnosis an MCL sprain by using your medical history, a physical examination and a series of tests to locate which ligaments, bones or muscles may be injured. Your doctor will also ask how the injury occurred. Many knee injuries present with similar symptoms, so knowing exactly how your trauma happened will help your doctor identify the most likely source of injury. You will be asked to extend and flex at the knee and to report the pain associated with these movements. You may also be asked to repeat these motions as the doctor applies resistance. Finally, an MRI may help your doctor definitively diagnose your MCL sprain.


MCL sprains are usually associated with pain on the inside of the knee and a feeling of instability as you walk. This pain may travel down the inside of your leg. You may also have swelling and a decreased range of motion.


As with many orthopedic injuries, you should rest the affected area. For MCL sprains, the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center suggests that you avoid putting weight on the affected leg and ice your knee often throughout the first three days after the sprain occurs. Your doctor may recommend a knee brace to keep your knee joint in a safe, neutral position and prevent further tearing of your MCL. You will also want to elevate your leg as much as you can to help with the swelling. Taking anti-inflammatory medication can help reduce pain. You may also be prescribed a physical therapy program or an exercise plan to strengthen your muscles and help you regain full range of motion.

Time Frame for Recovery

Because MCL sprains vary in severity, each type of sprain will require a different amount of time for a full recovery. Grade I sprains are the least severe and can be fully healed in four to six weeks. Grade II sprains affect more of the MCL and can take two to three months to completely heal. Grade III MCL sprains are the most serious and may need to be repaired with surgery. You can expect to be treating a Grade III MCL sprain for at least three months. If you undergo surgery, it may be up to 12 months before you are able to resume all normal activities.