A person holding their knee

Knee sprains are not that well heard of compared to ankle sprains.

Yet, they’re amongst the most common knee injuries out there, and while they occur for many reasons, the symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment of a knee sprain tend to be pretty consistent. 

Whether caused by sports-related accidents, a fall, a direct blow, or even a car or bike casualty, it’s essential to know how to recognize signs of a knee sprain, meaning the appropriate treatment reaches you as quickly as possible. 

Can you sprain your knee?

Yes, you can sprain your knee. A severe sprain of the knee can be a serious injury too. 

In fact, you can sprain any of the joints in your body, although the most common area tends to be the legs.

This article explores the common causes of knee sprains, the symptoms, diagnostic methods, available treatments, and how to prevent knee sprains from happening (when possible.)

What is a knee sprain?

A sprained knee refers to an injury to the main knee ligaments. 

Coming from a sports background, I’ve heard much about knee sprains –  sprains are seen frequently in athletes. 

A knee sprain is an injury to the ligaments of the knee joint without it being a full-on, complete tear of the ligament in question. 

It’s instead, an ‘over-stretching’ of the ligament without it being enough to cause the ligament(s) to rupture. 

But what actually are ligaments?

Ligaments are strong bands of elastic-like tissue that connect bones together. They’re a critical component in stabilizing the body.

Depending on how much damage is done to the ligaments in a knee sprain injury, the sprain itself is categorized as mild to severe. 

Milder cases require rest and home-based remedies such as ice packs and compression bandages, while more severe cases often require physical therapy. 

Surgery is rare for a knee sprain, being more commonly seen when a ligament tear is present. 

A runner holding their leg by the ankle.

Causes of knee sprains

Causes of knee sprains include: 

  • Athletic injuries
  • Accidents
  • Traumas
  • Falls
  • Arthritis
  • Bursitis
  • Age-related changes

Symptoms of knee sprains

These are the most commonly seen symptoms in knee sprain cases. 

  • Knee pain
  • Knee instability
  • Swelling
  • Difficulty moving the knee
  • Tenderness when touching the knee
  • Warmth
  • Bruising
  • Redness

Symptoms vary from person to person, so if you’re unsure, get examined by a medical professional.

Diagnosing and treating a knee sprain

A healthcare provider should physically examine the knee and assess joint stability alongside range of motion (if a sprain is suspected).

Of course, a knee strain can mimic a variety of injuries, so a torn ligament would need to be ruled out too.

This is why imaging tests, such as X-rays or MRIs, may be requested to rule out further injury, such as a broken bone or ACL tear.

Treatment usually depends on the severity of the sprain.

It typically involves rest, ice, compression, elevation, anti-inflammatory pain medicines, and physical therapy. 

The thing to know about knee sprains is that they don’t heal overnight. It takes time, sometimes months, to heal fully, so adjustments must be made to continue with everyday activities as safely as possible. 

Knee braces or crutches help in some cases to provide additional support and reduce the risk of further injury.

These help keep the injured knee stable while improving recovery time. An elastic bandage over the affected knee can also be therapeutic. 

Physical therapy is another treatment for knee sprains and should be managed by an experienced physical therapist.

Physical therapists create custom exercises tailored to the individual’s needs and activity level to regain strength and stability in the knee joint. 

Here are some therapeutic modalities that physical therapists often use:

  • Heat therapy
  • A cold pack or ice pack
  • Massage
  • Electrical stimulation
  • Taping methods
  • Ultrasound therapy
A person with their hand on their knee.

Preventing Knee Sprains

Preventing knee sprains is an integral part of staying fit and injury-free. 

And, let’s be real: a knee sprain can put you out of action for many days, even months, so they’re best avoided if possible. 

In fact, taking appropriate preventative measures significantly reduces your risk of suffering from a knee sprain, or any other knee injury, for that matter. 

Physical Activity

First, being mindful of physical activity is essential.

Knowing your body and what it’s capable of, especially if you’re an athlete or participate in contact sports.

Also, mixing in low-impact physical activities such as swimming and yoga reduces risk factors taking off some of the normal wear and tear of more rigorous activities. 

Be sure to warm up your muscles before strenuous activity! Years of experience taught me this.

Protective Equipment

If you need extra protection for peace of mind wear protective gear such as knee braces or shin guards when involved with contact sports or heavy lifting in the gym.

Believe me, a knee sleeve is a welcome tool when lifting heavy weights!

Healthy Weight

Maintaining a healthy weight drastically reduces strain on your knees.

So too, does strengthening the muscles outside the knee. This makes the knee joint more stable, meaning it’s less likely to suffer from injury (including knee ligament injuries.) 

Interestingly, falls are another common cause of knee sprains, so taking precautions to avoid them is vital. 

Daily Activities

While going about your daily activities, stay safe by using handrails when climbing stairs, and avoid slippery surfaces. Wear non-skid footwear wherever possible. 

It’s also a good idea to keep your home well-lit during hours of darkness to avoid tripping over objects you might not see at night. 

Simple things, I know, but they really do make a difference! Whether it’s a minor knee sprain or severe pain that affects the individual, this injured area (the knee) has been shown to drastically impact the quality of life of many people.

Summary

When you’re out of action from a knee injury, it affects you mentally and physically. I wrote about this topic extensively in my book Torn: Overcoming the psychological challenges post ACL injury.

To end, if you experience any symptoms of a knee sprain, such as pain or swelling after an accident or fall – seek medical attention immediately. Doing so offers the best chance of a successful recovery.

For more interesting knee health reads, click here

About the Author

Hi there! I’m Dr. Keagen Hadley, OTD, OTR/L. Straight out of the University of Mary, I’m all about blending my know-how in knee health, well-being, and medical technology. As a licensed occupational therapy doc, I’m here to translate complex concepts into clear, actionable insights – whether it’s knee care or groundbreaking healthcare tech.

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