A torn ligament is a common sports-related and work-related injury, but you can also sustain such an injury in accidents or from general wear and tear. Tears or strains in a ligament occur if a joint becomes overstretched or is twisted. Ligaments can have incomplete tears or total tears. An incomplete tear may feel like a severe strain, while a total tear can be as painful as a broken bone .
Ligaments are tough, stretchy, dense bands of fibrous tissue that connect two or more bones at a joint. They give your joints support and limit their movement. Ligaments are viscoelastic, meaning that the ligament slowly lengthens during tension and returns to its original structure when the tension is gone. You have ligaments around your ankles, elbows, knees, shoulders, and other joints.
What are the symptoms of a torn ligament?
There are several signs and symptoms of a torn ligament, including:
- Snapping, popping or a crackling sound when the injury occurs
- Pain that doesn’t improve within 24 to 72 hours
- Swelling that doesn’t lessen within 24 to 72 hours
- Limited ability to move the joint
- Inability to bear weight on joint
- Symptoms that get worse
What are the most commonly injured ligaments?
The most commonly injured ligaments are ankles and knees. A torn ligament of the ankle is usually the result of a joint twist (tear, stretch, or a complete rupture) of the ligaments that join the bones of the ankle. A torn ligament of the knee is usually the result of a sudden twisting motion (anterior cruciate ligament) or a direct impact on the site (posterior cruciate ligament) as the result of a football tackle or motor vehicle accident.
Other commonly injured ligaments include the shoulder and wrist. A torn ligament of the shoulder (glenoid labrum tear) is often due to a repetitive motion of the shoulders (e.g., throwing a ball, weightlifting) or from an acute trauma (e.g., a shoulder blow, a violent reach over the head to prevent a fall, a falling over on an extended arm, etc.). A torn ligament of the wrist is often due to a wrist twisted or torque, which usually happens because the reflex is to extend out the hand to support or break a fall.
How is a torn ligament diagnosed?
To diagnose a torn ligament, your doctor may:
- Ask you to describe your injury in full detail.
- Perform a physical exam of the injured area, asking you to squat, hop, step, flex, or bend, testing your ability to move or bear weight on a joint.
- Order imaging tests, such as an MRI, ultrasound or x-ray to confirm the diagnosis of a torn ligament or fracture
While a torn ligament can heal on its own over time, it is best to seek out medical attention to ensure that the affected area heals correctly without a lot of excessive scarring.
How do you treat a torn ligament?
There are several ways to treat a torn ligament. Depending on the severity of your injury, your doctor may recommend first aid, medications, physical therapy, or surgery.
- First Aid. Within the first 72 hours of injury, you may need to ice the injured joint regularly, use a brace for extra support or a bandage to reduce swelling, elevate the injury, and rest and stay off your feet. Some patients may be advised to use crutches to help keep weight off an injured knee for example.
- Medications. Your doctor may recommend some over-the-counter medications or prescription medications to help reduce swelling and pain. For extreme pain, your doctor may inject the injured area with steroid medication.
- Physical Therapy. Your doctor may recommend that you see a physical therapist a few days a week to help you regain full range of motion. After a few outpatient treatments, you may be given exercises to continue at home.
- Surgery. If you have a severe injury, your doctor may recommend surgery. The surgery will depend on the type of injury. For example, for a knee injury such as an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear, a surgeon may remove the damaged ACL and replace it with tissue to grow a new ligament in its place. After surgery, patients are advised to do physical therapy to help with recovery.
How long does it take to recover from a torn ligament?
The time it takes to recover from a torn ligament depends on the degree of injury. For minor tears with microscopic damage, it may take up to 6 weeks for a full recovery as long as you don’t do anything to perpetuate the injury (e.g., like exercising before your doctor clears you to do so). Obviously, the more severe the tear, the longer it will take to recover, especially if surgery is required. At that point, you will need to follow your surgeon’s advice for post-surgical care, which may include physical therapy.
How do you prevent a torn ligament?
There are several things you can do to prevent a torn ligament injury. Most importantly, stretch and do exercises that strengthen muscles. This helps to prevent tendinitis and tears. If muscles aren’t strong, they will overcompensate, which can lead to tears.
Weight training strengthens your muscles so they can act as shock absorbers. Perform warm-up and cool-down exercises before you begin and end a workout. Regular exercise increases blood flow to the muscles, reducing your chances of injury.
What can Summit Orthopaedics do for you?
At Summit Orthopaedics, we can provide immediate x-rays on-site at your scheduled appointment.
If you have a torn ligament, you may get a cast or crutches. Casting is done on-site. Depending on the severity of the swelling, an immediate cast can be provided at your appointment. In some cases, you may need surgery to repair a torn ligament.