By Amy McGorry
“The shinbone’s connected to the thigh bone...” Hmm... did that song ever mention how they’re connected? One way is through the medial collateral ligament (MCL)!
The MCL runs along the inner knee and connects the lower femur (thigh bone) to your upper tibia (shinbone). It provides stability to the inner knee and helps limit outward twisting of the shinbone. If you've ever watched an athlete take a “hit” to the outer knee that pushes the knee inward, you've seen an MCL being injured. It's frequently sprained in sports like basketball, football, soccer and skiing. But you don’t have to be a pro athlete to suffer an MCL injury -- a pick-up game in hoops or football can leave you hobbling home.
When The MCL Is A Pain
When a force overpowers the MCL’s strength, a tear occurs. The knee now loses stability and the athlete experiences pain, typically over the inside of the knee. You may see swelling one to two days after the injury. Standing up from a chair can be painful as the ligament gets stressed as the knee bends. Often with tears, athletes feel like "the knee may buckle."
Why You're Sidelined
Any type of force directed towards the inner knee from the outer knee stresses this ligament. If your knee collapses inward as you jump, run or go up steps, your MCL is subject to injury.
An athlete can also sprain an MCL when a planted foot turns outward forcefully, as when you're pivoting your knee in kickboxing. It can be an isolated injury, but it's often associated with an ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) and a medial meniscus tear. When all three are involved, it’s called the “unhappy triad” -- leaving one unhappy athlete headed for season-ending surgery.
A MCL tear usually responds to conservative care. Surgery is typically avoided as long as no other ligaments are involved. An athlete may be sidelined from two weeks to two months, depending on the severity of the tear.
How To Stay In The Game
I can’t protect you from game-day hits, but an overall program strengthening the hips and thighs may give that knee some protection.
Do two to three sets of 10 repetitions of the following exercises three days a week:
- With a light ankle weight, lie on stomach and bend knee
- Slowly straighten knee back to floor
- Repeat with other knee
One-Leg Wall Slides
- Stand against a wall on one leg, with your foot six inches from wall
- Slide down the wall, bending knee to a 45-degree angle
- Keep knee in line with toes
- Return to starting position
- Stand next to a 3” to 8” step holding medium-heavy dumbbells
- Side-step foot onto step
- Keep knee in line with toes throughout exercise
- Straighten knee on step as you lift up onto step
- Bend knee SLOWLY as you lower back to the ground
- Lie on your side with hips stacked
- Rest top leg in front of you on a ball
- Lift lower leg up and down towards ceiling