Rehab for Ligaments and Tendons

Medically Reviewed by Tyler Wheeler, MD on August 12, 2022
4 min read

Maybe you're a weekend warrior who injured your tendon or ligament while playing a lively game of basketball. Or perhaps you got a sprain when you took a spill while simply walking down the street. No matter how you got hurt, physical therapy will likely play a key role in your comeback plan.

Rehab gets you back to full speed. It helps you improve how well your injured joint moves and eases your pain. It can also help prevent permanent damage and problems that come and go.

Your therapist will use a mix of techniques to relieve pain and boost your coordination, strength, and flexibility. You may need to use exercise equipment like bikes and treadmills.

They may also treat your injury with heat or cold, or suggest you try a whirlpool bath. Some other methods they may turn to are electrical stimulation, ultrasound, or a massage.

You'll probably get exercises and stretching routines to do at home. Stick with them. Along with the work you do at your therapy appointments, they'll help you heal better, faster, and safer.

Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect bones to each other and keep your joints stable. For example, knee ligaments connect your thighbone to your shinbone, forming a joint, which lets you walk and run.

A sprain is a stretch or tear of a ligament. The ones most likely to get injured are in your ankles, knees, and wrists.

One of the most common knee ligament injuries is to a ligament called the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). There are more than 200,000 of these a year. In half the cases, people need surgery to repair the problem.

Your doctor may ask you to do physical therapy before an operation. If you're in this situation, your therapist may set these goals for you:

Improve how well you move your joint. It's also called increasing your "range of motion." He'll give you exercises, which start soon after your injury. They may include riding on a stationary bike or extending and flexing your leg.

Reduce swelling. Try to ice your joint as much as you can to help your blood circulate better. Elevate your knee above your heart while you keep an ice pack on. Compression with a knee sleeve or ACE bandage and the range-of-motion exercises will also help reduce swelling.

Retain muscle strength. The number of sets and reps will vary, depending on your injury, but the exercises include straight leg lifts, squats, static squats, leg extensions, leg curls, and leg presses.

Heart fitness. Exercises include swimming and using a stationary bike or elliptical trainer.

The goal for physical therapy after you have an operation is to get your joint working normally and safely again in as short a time as possible.

You'll get a plan tailored just for you, but rehab typically falls into this pattern:

Weeks 1-3. Your aim is to increase your range of motion and move around without crutches. Exercises include weight training, riding an exercise bike, and toe and heel raises.

Weeks 4-6. You'll keep up with exercises that are designed to let you stretch and flex your joint as far as possible. Your goals include trying to get your "gait" -- or manner of walking -- back to normal. Exercises include step-ups and modified lunges. You may also use weight machines to do leg extensions, hamstring curls, or leg presses.

Weeks 7-16. Your goals are to achieve full range of motion while preventing swelling and pain with exercises. These may include using machines like a treadmill, elliptical, or stair stepper. Swimming or outdoor biking may also be part of the plan.

Let's say you've injured your Achilles tendon playing pickup basketball. Or maybe it's your patellar tendon or an elbow tendon. While a serious tear could require surgery, don't make an appointment for the operating room just yet. Physical therapy could be your ticket to recovery.

Physical therapy is the usual treatment for an injury to the Achilles tendon, the largest tendon in your body and one of the most injured. Your therapist will design a plan to meet your individual goals, challenges, and needs.

A typical plan might include:

  • Stretching and flexibility exercises to help the tendon heal completely and avoid long-term pain
  • Strengthening exercises to help you rebuild tendon strength and avoid future injuries
  • Ultrasound heat therapy to improve blood circulation, which may aid the healing process
  • Deep massage to boost flexibility and circulation and prevent further injuries
  • Endurance activities, such as riding a stationary bike
  • Coordination or agility training

All of this includes working out at home as well as at the gym. If you keep up with your therapy, you'll get back quicker to the activities you love to do.