Whether you’re an elite athlete or a recreational enthusiast, if you play football, soccer, baseball, softball or another sport involving running, jumping and changing direction quickly, you rely on your knees to power your performance. Your knees, in turn, depend on ligaments, including the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL), for stability and range of motion. All too often, however, athletes of all ability levels experience ACL and MCL injuries.
ACL and MCL injuries are common sports injuries. Taking steps to strengthen and protect your knees can reduce your risk of a ligament letdown.
Understanding ACL and MCL Injuries
The ACL sits inside the knee below the kneecap and helps the joint move backward and forward. The MCL runs down one side of the knee, linking the thighbone and shinbone. ACL and MCL injuries, which are known as sprains, occur when the ligaments overstretch. This can lead to partial or complete tears.
MCL injuries typically occur from a hit to the outside of the knee, such as a football tackle. ACL injuries can also occur after a blow to the knee, but they can also happen due to a sudden stop or change in direction or to an incorrect landing after a jump. ACL and MCL injuries can cause pain, swelling and reduced range of motion.
Start With a Warm-Up
One of the keys to reducing your risk for ACL and MCL injuries is preparing your knees for activity before you launch into a workout, practice or game. In other words, you need to warm up.
A warm-up routine that includes dynamic stretching, in which you keep moving instead of holding your stretch, gets the soft tissues in your knee ready to move and helps you maintain flexibility. To warm up, you could start with an aerobic activity, such as a brisk walk or climbing stairs, and then add dynamic stretching. One example is the hamstring floor stretch. Lie on your back, bend your knee toward your chest, hold the joint from behind with both hands, gently pull the leg toward you, and straighten the leg toward the ceiling before bending again. Repeat this stretch several times for both legs.
Strength and Conditioning to Prevent ACL and MCL Injuries
You need strong muscles within and near the knees to protect the ligaments and help the joint stay stable. Balanced muscle strength is key. One weak muscle can put the whole knee at risk.
Use strengthening exercises to build up your quadriceps, hamstrings, calf muscles and others to help protect against ACL and MCL injuries. Useful exercises to consider adding to your workout regimen include deadlifts, squats, walking lunges and straight-leg raises.
Focus on Proper Technique and Form
Whether performing a specific exercise or playing your sport, it’s important to use proper technique and form to reduce your risk of knee ligament injuries. When working with weights, for example, keep your movements deliberate and controlled, and gradually increase the weight over time to avoid a muscle injury.
You can also take steps on the court or field to avoid ACL and MCL injuries. When moving, don’t let your knees fall in toward each other. Jump and land with your knees and feet aligned, and bend your knees gently when you land.
Functional Exercises to Avoid ACL and MCL Injuries
Functional exercises help prepare your knees for the rigors of sports. These exercises mimic movements you might make during practices and games so your body can get accustomed to them.
Examples of functional exercises include shuttle runs, single-leg squats and single-leg jumps. Functional exercises can help you build muscle strength and develop and practice proper technique, including landing technique.
Get the Right Gear
Using poorly fitting or improper equipment can increase your risk of injuring your ACL or MCL. Choosing the proper footwear can help keep your knee ligaments healthy. Use shoes designed for your sport, and be sure they fit well and include plenty of cushioning. You need ample arch support if you overpronate, which is excessive flattening of your arches when you walk. Overpronation can cause knee pain.
Some people wear a brace to stabilize the knee during physical activity, but the benefits of these devices are unclear. Your physician or a physical therapist can help you decide whether a brace or other equipment meant to help the knee, such as knee tape, makes sense for you.
Make Time to Rest and Recover
Overtraining — ramping up the intensity or duration of exercise too fast — can increase muscle fatigue, reduce strength and disrupt coordination, all of which can lead to ACL and MCL injuries. Incorporate rest into your training schedule so your body has time to recover. The American Council on Exercise recommends taking a rest day every seven to 10 days.
After an intense workout, practicing active recovery can help you bounce back. Unlike with rest, when you don’t exercise at all, active recovery calls for lower-intensity activity. On the day after a hard workout, for example, go for a brisk walk or swim a few laps at the gym.
Listen to Your Body
Your knees will let you know when there’s a problem. If you notice pain, swelling, instability or reduced range of motion, don’t push through the symptoms, which could lead to a more severe injury. Instead, see a healthcare professional, such as an urgent care clinic provider or your primary care provider. They may refer you for an X-ray or MRI at Carolinas Imaging Services to find out what kind of injury you have. An imaging exam can provide the information your healthcare provider needs for diagnoses, putting you on the road to treatment and recovery.