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Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) and Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL) Sprains

MCL and LCL sprains are commonly caused by contact sports or twisting movements, and symptoms include pain, swelling, tenderness, and instability at the knee joint. Treatment options range from conservative measures like rest, ice, compression, and elevation, to surgical intervention for severe sprains. Recovery time typically takes four to six weeks, depending on the severity of the sprain.

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What Are MCL and LCL Sprain Injuries?

Medial collateral ligament (MCL) and lateral collateral ligament (LCL) sprains are knee injuries.

The MCL is the ligament located on the inside of your knee joint. It links your thighbone (femur) and shinbone (tibia).

The LCL is the ligament located on the outside of your knee linking the thighbone and calf bone (fibula).

What causes MCL and LCL sprains?

The two most common causes of MCL sprains are when:

  • A player applies force to the outside side of your knee during contact sports, such as football and soccer.
  • You catch your foot in the ground and try to turn to the side, away from the planted leg.

An LCL sprain can occur if a player applies force to the inside of your knee during contact sports.

What are MCL and LCL sprain risk factors?

You increase your risk of an MCL or LCL sprain if you play contact sports, like football or soccer.

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What Are the Signs and Symptoms of MCL and LCL Sprains?

If you sprain your MCL or LCL, you may have symptoms such as:

  • Knee pain and swelling.
  • Tenderness over the injured ligament.
  • Weakness or instability at your knee joint.

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How Do You Diagnose MCL or LCL Sprains?

To diagnose an MCL sprain or a LCL sprain, your doctor will take a complete history of the injury and assess your symptoms.

He or she will ask you:

  • How the MCL or LCL sprain happened.
  • What type of movement caused the knee injury
  • Whether you heard a pop.
  • Where — and how much — your knee hurts.
  • Whether the knee feels unstable.
  • Details about any prior knee injuries.

Next, your doctor will perform a physical exam of the knee to check the stability of the ligaments.

He or she may also order imaging tests — such as x-rays and MRI scans — to get a precise picture of the extent of damage to your MCL or LCL.

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How Do You Treat MCL and LCL Sprains?

MCL or LCL sprain treatment depends on how severe the knee injury.

Doctors grade MCL and LCL sprains based on three levels of severity:

  • Grade I MCL or LCL sprain = damage to only a few knee ligament fibers.
  • Grade II = damage to a more extensive number of ligament fibers, but the ligament remains intact.
  • Grade III = complete tear of the knee ligament.

Treatment for Grade I or II MCL and LCL sprains

If you have a Grade I or Grade II MCL or LCL knee sprain, your doctor will likely prescribe the following treatments:

  • The R.I.C.E. method (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, for pain.
  • A knee brace for a short time.

Grade III MCL or LCL sprain treatment

For most Grade III MCL and LCL sprains, doctors will use many of the same conservative treatments as they do for less severe knee sprains.

These treatments may include:

  • R.I.C.E.
  • NSAIDs
  • Physical therapy exercises

For severe Grade III MCL and LCL sprains, doctors may perform surgery to repair the torn knee ligaments.

Recovery time for an MCL or LCL sprain is usually between four to six weeks. This may vary depending on the grade of your MCL or LCL sprain.

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