Knee sprain



What is knee sprain?

A knee sprain is an injury or damage to any of the four ligaments which support the knee.

The four main ligaments of the knee are the:

  • Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
  • Medial collateral ligament (MCL)
  • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL)

How common is knee sprain?

Knee sprain risk is especially high during activities that involve weight-bearing while bending or twisting such as soccer. Knee sprains are common in athletes who engage in fast-paced sports, such as soccer, football, basketball, lacrosse or field hockey. Please discuss with your doctor for further information.


What are the symptoms of knee sprain?

The common symptoms of knee sprain are

  • Pain. Athletes who have sustained knee sprains will experience varying degrees of pain depending on the severity of their injury. Knee pain will be dull and throbbing for mild sprains and sharp and constant in the case of severe sprains. Typically, pain subsides when the knee is at rest and returns with movement.
  • Knee swelling. A knee sprain is usually accompanied by swelling. The amount of swelling present will vary based upon exactly how severe the sprain is, as well as how long it has been since the injury was sustained.
  • Limited mobility. Following a sprain, weakness in the affected ligament(s) and localized swelling may limit an athlete’s mobility.
  • A popping sound. An athlete may hear an audible popping or snapping sound at the moment that the sprain occurs. This sound may indicate that one of the four major knee ligaments was torn at the moment of injury, suggesting a more serious (Grade III) sprain.
  • Inability to hold weight. The injury to the ligament and the accompanying knee inflammation and tenderness may make it difficult or impossible for the knee joint to bear weight.
  • Buckling of the knee.If a person can put weight on the affected leg, a buckling sensation may be felt in the knee when trying to stand, walk, or run. The direction in which the knee buckles may help indicate which ligament has been injured. For example, an LCL injury may cause the knee to buckle slightly towards the inside of the leg.
  • Though possible with sprains of any of the four major ligaments in the knee, bruising is most likely to occur following an ACL sprain. Discoloration will appear on and around the front of the kneecap.

A knee sprain, particularly a lower grade knee sprain, may not fully present symptoms until after a few hours or a day of rest.

Knee sprains symptoms can be similar to the symptoms of many other knee injuries. There may be some symptoms not listed above. If you have any concerns about a symptom, please consult your doctor.

When should I see my doctor?

If you have any signs or symptoms listed above or have any questions, please consult with your doctor. Everyone’s body acts differently. It is always best to discuss with your doctor what is best for your situation.


What causes knee sprain?

Most knee sprains occur as a result of:

  • Direct impact on the knee from an outside force
  • Pressure on the knee resulting from an abrupt stopping force or change in direction
  • Over-straightening of the knee joint or hyperextension (less common)

Risk factors

What increases my risk for knee sprain?

Any athlete can sustain a knee sprain, but there are several risk factors that can increase the likelihood of a knee sprain occurring. These factors include:

  • Improper footwear. An athlete’s shoes should be suited to the athlete’s biomechanics and appropriate for the sport. Inappropriate footwear can put more pressure on the knee joint and/or put the athlete at risk for accidents.
  • Prior injury. Having previously sprained a knee ligament increases the chance of re-injury.
  • Unexpected exertion. People who ramp up their training or level of athletic competition too quickly may increase their risk of knee sprains.
  • Cutting and contact sports. For example, soccer, football, women’s basketball players have higher risk of knee sprains.

Diagnosis & treatment

The information provided is not a substitute for any medical advice. ALWAYS consult with your doctor for more information.

How is knee sprain diagnosed?

The knee is a complex joint structure and diagnosis can be challenging. A doctor who suspects a knee sprain will want to rule out other possible causes of pain, such as a meniscal tear or tendon injury. The doctor will also keep in mind that the patient may have more than one injury—for example, the patient may have a knee sprain as well as a dislocated kneecap.

Common aspects of a knee sprain diagnosis often include:

Physical examination. A physical exam is an important part of the diagnostic process. The doctor will evaluate all the knee’s ligaments. During this time, the athlete’s ability to relax is important to getting an accurate assessment of the ligaments’ status.

Evaluation of medical history. The doctor will want to know how the knee injury occurred, what symptoms the patient has experienced, and if the patient has sustained previous injuries. The doctor will also ask about the patient’s symptoms, such as if certain movements cause pain or weakness, or if certain positions or movements relieve the pain.

Imaging. Medical imaging, such as an X-Ray or MRI, allows visualization of the anatomical structures inside of the knee in order to gauge the severity of the ligament injury. Imaging also helps determine of other structures in the knee have been damaged. For example, a patient may have a knee sprain as well as a broken bone, injured cartilage, and/or a meniscus tear.

An X-ray helps with a diagnosis of a bone fracture, and an MRI enables visualization of soft tissue injuries, such as a tendon or ligament injury.

How is knee sprain treated?

Before a knee sprain can be fully treated, a medical evaluation will be necessary to determine the severity (grade) of the injury. This page describes the recommended treatments for knee sprains, as well as the steps patients can take to relieve pain and swelling during the days or hours before they see a doctor.

Immediate Treatment for a Suspected Knee Sprain

  • A knee injury can cause significant pain and swelling within seconds. The RICE method and anti-inflammatory medications can help reduce these symptoms while waiting for medical attention:
    • The R.I.C.E. method can help to stabilize the leg and decrease pain both before and after medical evaluation. This includes.
    • Rest: Resting the affected knee minimizes the risk of further injury or damage to the joint.
    • Ice: An ice pack wrapped in a towel or a cool compress can be applied to the affected knee in fifteen minute intervals, pausing between each session to avoid damaging the skin. Icing the joint helps to reduce any swelling that is present.
    • Compression: Wrapping an elasticized bandage around the knee can provide mild compression of the joint and help reduce localized inflammation. Patients are advised not to wrap the bandage so tight it is painful or cuts off circulation.
    • The injured knee should be elevated with a pillow or other soft object. This will prevent blood from pooling in the injured area and contributing to the swelling.
  • Non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, such as ibuprofen, may be given to the athlete in order to reduce swelling in the affected knee.

In order to ensure that the knee joint and ligaments are not damaged further, it is important that medical attention is sought before returning to weight-bearing activities or athletic training or competition.

Non-Surgical Treatments for Knee Sprains

The vast majority of knee sprains may be treated with non-surgical procedures that center on bringing the knee back to full strength.

Physical therapy. Following an initial course of treatment for pain relief, it is typical for a knee sprain to be treated with physical therapy. Physical therapy will involve a mixture of exercises aimed at strengthening the knee and activities that increase and restore knee flexibility. Two primary components of physical therapy are:

  • Weight training: A physical therapist will have the patient lift small amounts of weight with in repetitive sets. This exercise may involve resistance bands, weighted braces or exercise equipment that involves the knee joint. Over time and in a controlled, progressive manner, the amount of repetitions and the weight being lifted will increase.
  • Stretching for flexibility. A therapist may also want to regularly measure the range of motion of a given athlete periodically and offer stretching exercises that may increase it. Typically, a return to a fully normal range of motion and flexibility is a sign that an athlete is nearly ready to return to athletic training.

The length and intensity of a physical therapy program will depend upon several factors, such as age, medical history, level of athletic competition and the severity of the knee sprain.

Surgery for Knee Sprains

In the event that the knee sprain is severe, surgery may be necessary to repair the damaged ligament(s). Surgery is typically only recommended if the knee sprain is a Grade III (full ligament tear).

Typically, a knee ligament surgical repair is done arthroscopically, which is a minimally invasive approach. Arthroscopic surgery involves making a small incision (typically less than half an inch) on the front or back of the knee and running a miniature camera into the leg. The camera will be used to assess the extent of the damage to the knee. Once this has been completed, small tools will also be inserted into the knee in order to remove or repair the damaged tissue.

Lifestyle changes & home remedies

What are some lifestyle changes or home remedies that can help me manage knee sprain?

If you have any questions, please consult with your doctor to better understand the best solution for you.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Review Date: October 24, 2017 | Last Modified: October 27, 2017

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