You’ve likely heard of an ACL ligament tear or injury before. But did you know that MCL tears can be just as painful and debilitating?

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is integral to your knee joint.

When an injury occurs, it causes pain, swelling, and instability in the affected leg, making walking and running a no-go for weeks to months at a time.

In this article, we’ll explore what it’s really like to have a torn MCL—from the symptoms and diagnosis to the treatments available and the rehabilitation process.

We’ll also discuss MCL tear severity and prevention tips, plus when to seek help from a healthcare provider.

After all, getting to grips with what you must do if you experience an MCL injury will ensure you get back on your feet as quickly and pain-free as possible.

What Does A Torn MCL Feel Like?

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is a band of elastic-like tissue located inside the knee, on the knee joint’s inner side.

It helps keep the knee stable and prevents excessive sideways movement. This is known as medial-to-lateral stabilization.

A tear of this ligament (known as an MCL tear) often occurs when there’s a direct hit (such as a collision or car accident) or a rapid change of direction to the outside of the knee.

Symptoms of an MCL tear include:

  • Swelling
  • Knee instability (inability to weight-bear)
  • A ‘popping’ sound at the time of injury
  • Severe pain when the damage occurs
  • Pain during activities that involve bending or rotating your leg following an injury.

If you experience any symptoms like these after a knee injury, make sure you seek medical help right away.

Your doctor can diagnose an MCL injury or tear using physical examinations and diagnostic scans.

MRI scans are often used to obtain detailed images of structures inside the body, meaning doctors can accurately assess the severity of an MCL sprain or tear, if there is one.

They may also use physical examinations, such as checking your range of motion in the injured leg or assessing for pain when moving in specific directions.

Deep palpation may be used, which can be uncomfortable when determining where the pain is coming from in the knee and whether there’s damage to other tissues in the area, which also needs looking into.

Grades of MCL Tears 

If you tear your MCL, the degree of damage is usually ‘graded’, based on its severity.

The three grades of MCL tears are:

  • Grade 1 (minor)
  • Grade 2 (moderate)
  • Grade 3 (severe)

A Grade 1 tear usually involves minor stretching or a slight tear of the ligament fibers with no significant disruption to the structure or use of the knee.

Symptoms may include mild-moderate pain on the inside part of your knee, swelling, and tenderness when pressing on the area.

A Grade 2 tear is more severe and involves partial tearing of some collagen fibers in addition to swelling, tenderness, and pain on the inner side of your knee joint.

Lastly, a Grade 3 tear is the complete rupture or tearing of all collagen fibers in the ligament, along with significant instability in the knee joint. 

Symptoms may include a popping sound while the injury occurs, followed by intense pain and swelling in the symptomatic area.

Treatment Of MCL Tears

Treatment for any knee ligament injury falls into two categories:

Those being:

  1. Conservative treatment
  2. Surgical treatment

Grade 1 tears typically respond very well to conservative treatments, which include rest, ice/cold therapy, compression wraps/braces, and physical therapy exercises. 

More often than not, grade 2 and 3 tears require surgical repair, in which case an orthopedic surgeon would perform an arthroscopic procedure to repair the torn ligament.

If you’re concerned you’ve suffered from an MCL injury (or any ligament injury), you must see a healthcare provider right away for the best treatment and outcome opportunities.

The longer you leave it, the more difficult it may be to diagnose and treat the injury appropriately, so act fast for the best recovery prospects.

Rehabilitation After MCL Injury

Rehabilitation following MCL injuries is a crucial part of the healing process and must be planned for as part of the healing process.

Physical therapy, with exercises designed to strengthen the muscles in the knee, will help speed up the recovery of ligament damage, though it’s worthwhile to have realistic expectations.

What I mean is that it’s not unusual for a ligament to take longer than a bone to heal, so be patient with yourself and your body.

The type of injury usually indicates recovery time expectations, so ask your doctor for advice on this when you see them.

Support braces ought to be used to stabilize the knee during the healing process and will also add a touch of comfort, perhaps helping to accelerate your walking abilities.

Of course, activities such as running, jumping, and contact sports should be avoided until the injury has healed completely or you have been given the go-ahead from your healthcare provider.

The good news is that with proper rehabilitation, individuals often fully recover from an MCL injury. 

Sports Medicine

Physical therapy has one main goal in mind regarding ligament injuries.

That is, to restore the full range of motion in the affected knee joint and improve strength in the leg muscles, enabling you to return to normal activities within a reasonable time frame.

A physical therapist may recommend using a hinged knee brace for support during certain activities, sports, or other high-impact activities. My advice is to take their advice! They know what they’re talking about!

Your doctor may also prescribe additional exercises to do at home as part of your rehabilitation program.

These could include leg lifts, hamstring curls, calf raises, wall squats, hip abduction/adduction, and clamshells, all designed to improve flexibility and increase strength in the affected leg.

Remember, no two knee ligament injuries are the same, and recovery times vary from person to person. There is no ‘normal’ recovery time!

Therefore, having a flexible, open approach to your rehabilitation will stand you in good stead for a full recovery in the end, no matter how long it takes.

For reassurance, an MCL injury is a common knee injury seen in many cases of sportsmen, women, and athletes alike, making the treatment and recovery of it a well-known field.

Tips To Prevent MCL Injury

The best way is always prevention. Not having an injured knee in the first place is ideal, but hindsight is beautiful. And accidents do happen.

So, first and foremost, be kind to yourself!

However, if you’re reading this and you haven’t got an MCL injury, the following tips may be of interest:

These are surefire ways to reduce your risk of severe injuries to all knee ligaments:

  • Stick to low-impact activities, such as swimming or walking
  • Wear protective gear during contact sports 
  • Avoid sudden changes in direction 
  • Partake in regular stretching and strengthening exercises, particularly ones that strengthen the knee joint
  • Get plenty of rest in between training and exercising

To end, while prevention plays a vital role in avoiding injury overall, what’s even more important is knowing when to call a doctor if an injury does happen.

Hopefully, by reading through this post, you’ll know the signs and symptoms of an MCL injury and when to seek medical advice for knee pain (or any lower leg issues) you’re facing.

Thanks for reading. You can read more posts of mine 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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