Did you know that knee injuries are the third most common sport-related injuries? The knee is a complex joint and endures a lot during athletic activities. If you’re reading this now, you might be an athlete who’s experienced a knee injury suddenly. If so, we highly recommend that you get an exam from a qualified sports medicine physician or doctor as soon as possible. But if you’ve already sought help and are in the recovery phase, we’ll help you understand what may have happened to your MCL and the recovery time you can expect. 

What is your MCL?

To really understand what happens after a medial collateral ligament injury, you should be familiar with the MCL and its function in your body.

The MCL is a ligament that connects the inside of your femur (thighbone) to the inside of your tibia (shinbone). You have one MCL running along the inside of each knee. Ligaments in the body, including your MCL, are bands of connective tissue that connect bones, joints, and organs. They essentially help you move properly and hold everything together. Your medial collateral ligaments help hold your knees in place by resisting valgus force. Valgus force is pressure coming from the outside of your knees, pushing them inward. 

Anatomy diagram showing the medial collateral ligament and an image of a woman with the MCL highlighted.

How Does an MCL Injury Occur?

MCL injuries are usually caused by a direct blow to the outside of your knee (a valgus force). If this blow is strong enough, you could experience an MCL tear. The severity of the tear can vary. 

Athletes that play high-impact sports such as football, soccer, and martial arts are at a higher risk of a torn MCL. Sports that involve a lot of sprinting, jumping, and quickly changing directions are also high-risk. Any occurrence or accident that puts pressure on your knees could cause a torn MCL, such as a car or bike accident. Here is a list of sports activities that have a higher risk of MCL injury:

  • Football
  • Soccer
  • Martial Arts
  • Volleyball
  • Basketball
  • Tennis
  • Skiing
  • Track & Field 
  • Mountain Biking 
  • Cycling
  • Motorcross

Symptoms of an MCL injury include pain and swelling on the inside of the knee and instability when walking. To know for certain if you have an MCL injury, you should see a local sports medicine specialist or doctor to examine your knee. They will check your areas of pain and the overall stability of your knee joint.

Once someone can look at your injured knee, they will give your MCL injury a grade from 1-3. Injured ligaments are considered “sprains” (even if a tear occurs) and are given a grade from the following scale:

  • Grade 1 MCL Sprain
    • The ligament is mildly damaged. Your knee is most likely still stable, but painful and tender to the touch. 
  • Grade 2 MCL Sprain
    • The ligament is moderately damaged with a partial tear. Your knee might feel somewhat loose and have strong pain, tenderness, and swelling. 
  • Grade 3 MCL Sprain
    • The ligament is completely torn. Your knee will feel loose and very painful, and you will notice certain tenderness and swelling. 

If you do have an MCL injury, there could be a chance of other damage within the knee. While your knee is examined, the medial meniscus and ACL will be looked at, too. 

Two men playing American football wearing white and red jerseys

What is the Recovery Time for a Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) Injury?

The recovery time for an MCL sprain will depend on its grade, your treatment plan, and your recovery program. On average, you should expect to be in recovery mode for 3-12+ weeks. If you have a grade 1 MCL sprain, you could fully recover within as little as 3 weeks. If you have a grade 2-3 MCL sprain, you can expect to need at least 4+ weeks to recover.

Thankfully, MCL tears rarely require surgery, which allows them to have less recovery time than some other sports injuries. But if you need surgery, you should expect your recovery time to be on the longer side. Chances are your doctor will require you to wear a brace, and experts suggest that you participate in a *comprehensive rehabilitation program for optimum recovery. Once you’re fully recovered, ask your doctor about taking a Valgus Stress Test. They will test to see what your risk is of another MCL injury and see the strength that you’ve gained in recovery.

Hopefully this post has given you useful estimates for how much time it will take to recover from an MCL injury. If you need an exam and live in the Boise area, reach out to ISMI today to schedule an appointment.

*Please always consult your physician before beginning any exercise program. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider. We do not provide medical aid or nutrition advice for the purpose of health or disease, nor do we claim to be dietitians. Any nutrition recommendation is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.