Knee Sprain of the Collateral Ligaments

The knee is a hinge joint supported by 4 strong ligaments. The 2 ligaments inside the knee protect this joint from excess forward and backward movement. The ligaments on the outside of the joint prevent side-to-side motion. These are called the collateral ligaments.

The medial collateral ligament is located on the inner side of the joint. The lateral collateral ligament is on the outer side of the joint.

A sprain is a tearing of a ligament. The tear may be partial or complete. Diagnosis is made by physical exam. In the case of a sudden (acute) injury, the knee may be too swollen or painful to examine fully. A more accurate exam can be done after the initial swelling goes down.

Symptoms of a knee sprain include immediate knee swelling, pain, and trouble walking. Initial treatment includes rest, splinting the knee to reduce movement of the joint, and icing the knee to reduce swelling and pain. You may use over-the-counter pain medicine to control pain, unless another medicine was prescribed. Most sprains will heal in 3 to 6 weeks. A severe injury can take 3 to 4 months to heal. You may also need rehab exercises. Surgery is usually not required for sprains affecting only the collateral ligaments.

Home care

  • Stay off the injured leg as much as possible until you can walk on it without pain. If you have a lot of pain while walking, crutches or a walker may be prescribed. These can be rented or purchased at many pharmacies and surgical or orthopedic supply stores. Follow your healthcare provider’s advice about when to begin bearing weight on that leg. 

  • If you were given a hook-and-loop closure knee brace, you can remove it to bathe. But leave it in place when walking, sitting, or lying down unless told otherwise.

  • Apply an ice pack over the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes every 2 to 3 hours. You should do this for the first 24 to 48 hours. You can make an ice pack by filling a plastic bag that seals at the top with ice cubes and then wrapping it with a thin towel. Keep using ice packs to ease pain and swelling as needed. As the ice melts, be careful to avoid getting your wrap, splint, or cast wet. You can place the ice pack directly over the splint. If you have to wear a hook-and-loop knee brace, you can open it to apply the ice pack, or heat, directly to the knee. Never put ice directly on the skin. Always wrap the ice in a towel or other type of cloth.

  • You may use over-the-counter pain medicine to control pain, unless another pain medicine was prescribed. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may be more effective than acetaminophen. If you have long-term (chronic) liver or kidney disease, ever had a stomach ulcer or gastrointestinal bleeding, or take blood thinners, talk with your healthcare provider before using these medicines.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider as advised. Any X-rays you had today don’t show any broken bones, breaks, or fractures. Sometimes fractures don’t show up on the first X-ray. Bruises and sprains can sometimes hurt as much as a fracture. These injuries can take time to heal completely. If your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse, talk with your healthcare provider. You may need a repeat X-ray or other tests such as MRI. If X-rays were taken, you'll be told of any new findings that may affect your care.

Call 911

Call 911 if you have:

  •  Shortness of breath

  •  Chest pain

When to get medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Pain or swelling increases

  • Swelling, redness, or pain in the calf or thigh

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