A medial collateral ligament, or MCL, connects the medial surfaces of the femur (thigh bone) and the tibia (shin bone). The main purpose of the MCL is to resist the forces from the outer surface of the knee to prevent the inner portion from widening under stress. An injury to the MCL can be painful and is rated on a scale of I, II or III -- with III being the most serious injury to the MCL. A sprain and a tear often have the same symptoms.
Most recipients of MCL sprains are athletes in contact sports. An MCL sprain is the result of tearing or over-stretching the ligament. This usually occurs due to an impact on the side of the knee, which can force the knee inward and cause the ligament to detach from the bone. This is common in football, basketball and other team sports where bodies can crash into another easily.
Grade I sprains involve mild tenderness inside the knee just over the ligament area. While there is usually no swelling in the knee area, pain is felt when the knee is bent and when the area has pressure applied to it. Stressing the knee, bending it or moving it up and down may also cause pain. A person with a Grade I sprain will feel pain when he stands up from sitting in a chair.
This type of MCL sprain will bring significant tenderness on the inside of the knee and over the ligament area. Swelling is present, as is pain when the knee is straightened or bent. Swelling may take 24 hours to appear and may disappear and reappear during moments of rest or activity. There may also be a feeling of looseness around the knee, as if the knee could move side to side. The knee may buckle or give, causing difficulty in walking.
This is a complete tear of the ligament, with pain ranging from non-existent to excruciating. There is a significant looseness in the knee and the injured person may complain of having a wobbly or unstable knee. Swelling is likely to occur if the fluid that surrounds the knee leaks or if there is internal bleeding. An injured person may have difficulty walking due to knee buckling and instability.
The basic treatment for all three grades of an MCL sprain is the RICE method. This stands for Rest-Ice-Compression-Elevation. Resting a knee with a sprained MCL is vital, and ice should be applied for 20 minutes every two or three hours for the first two or three days. A compression bandage should be applied to prevent swelling, and the leg should be elevated above the level of the heart. Depending on the severity of the sprain, the injured person may be required to take it easy for a few weeks or months, attend physical therapy or may even require surgery to repair the MCL.