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The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) is the ligament located in the knee joint. Ligaments are thick, strong bands of tissue that connect bone to bone. The LCL runs along the outside of the knee joint, from the outside of the bottom of the thighbone (femur) to the top of the lower-leg bone (fibula). The LCL helps keep the knee joint stable, especially the outer aspect of the joint.
An injury to the LCL could include straining, spraining, and partially or completely tearing any part of that ligament. According to Orthogate, the LCL is one of the more commonly injured ligaments in the knee. Because of the location of the LCL, it’s common to injure the LCL along with other ligaments in the knee.
The main cause of LCL injuries is direct-force trauma to the inside of the knee. This puts pressure on the outside of the knee and causes the LCL to stretch or tear.
Symptoms of an LCL injury can be mild or severe, depending on the severity of the sprain or if it’s torn. If the ligament is mildly sprained, you may not have any symptoms at all. For a partial tear or complete tear of the ligament, your symptoms may include:
To diagnose an LCL injury, your doctor will examine your knee and look for swelling. They’ll also move your knee in various directions to determine where your pain is and how severe your symptoms are.
If your doctor believes you may have a torn ligament, you may undergo imaging tests like X-rays or MRI scans. These tests will allow your doctor to see the soft tissues inside the knee.
The treatment options for LCL injuries will depend on the severity of the injury and your lifestyle.
For minor injuries, treatment may include:
- applying ice
- elevating the knee above the heart
- taking a pain reliever
- limiting physical activity until the pain and swelling are gone
- using a brace (knee immobilizer) or crutches to protect the knee
- physical therapy or rehabilitation to strengthen and regain range of motion
For more severe injuries, treatment may also include physical therapy, rehabilitation, or surgery. Physical therapy strengthens and helps you regain range of motion. Surgery may include ligament repair or reconstruction.
Surgery doesn’t usually treat injuries to only the LCL. However, the LCL is often injured along with other ligaments in the knee. In these cases, surgery is probably necessary.
It’s difficult to prevent knee ligament injuries because they’re often a result of an accident or unforeseen circumstance. However, several preventive measures can help minimize the risk of a knee ligament injury, including:
- using proper technique and alignment when doing physical activities, including walking
- stretching regularly to maintain good range of motion in the body
- strengthening the muscles of the upper and lower legs to help stabilize the joint
- using caution when playing sports where knee injuries are common, such as soccer and football
For minor injuries, the ligament may heal without any issue. However, it’s important to note that if the ligament got severely stretched, it may never regain its prior stability. This means that it’s more likely that the knee will be somewhat unstable and you could easily injure it again. The joint could become swollen and sore simply from physical activity or minor injury.
For those with a major injury who don’t have surgery, the joint will most likely remain unstable and easily injured. You may not be able to do physical activities that require repetitive use of the knee, including running, climbing, or biking. Pain could result from minor activities like walking or standing for extended periods. You may have to wear a brace to protect the joint during physical activity.
For those who have surgery, the outlook will depend on the severity of the original injury and the surgical procedure. Generally, you’ll have improved mobility and stability after the joint completely heals. You may have to wear a brace or limit physical activities in the future to help prevent reinjuring the knee.
In knee injuries involving more than just the LCL, treatment and outlook may be different, as those injuries could be more severe.
What exercises can I do to help my LCL heal?
No specific exercise can help a LCL heal. The ligament will heal on its own, and the main thing to do is to prevent re-injury to the ligament during its healing. During the healing phase, range of motion exercises may be done, and gentle strengthening of the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and biceps femoris (hamstring muscles) are encouraged. A stress applied from the inner aspect towards the outer aspect of the knee should be avoided to prevent re-injury to the healing ligament.
One simple way to regain motion is to do a quadriceps stretch. Stand on your good leg, grasp your injured foot with the hand on the same side, and gently flex your knee using your hand to help bend the knee.
A simple stretch to regain extension is to sit on the floor with your legs straight out in front and gently work on straightening your knee by pushing downward on it.
Using a stationary or recumbent bicycle is an excellent way to strengthen the quadriceps. If the devise has toe straps, it helps to strengthen the hamstring muscle groups as well.William Morrison, MDAnswers represent the opinions of our medical experts. All content is strictly informational and should not be considered medical advice.