Ligament injuries are quite common in active sports. They usually affect the knees, ankles, the foot, and the spine, since these parts tend to bear most of the body weight. These injuries are usually caused by altered movement, reduced functional performance, and muscle weakness, among other factors. When a person has ligament injuries, they might be forced to forgo all intense physical activities for a few weeks to several months, depending on the severity of the problem. If you are an athlete, you might end up being sidelined for an entire season. It’s, therefore, important to learn what causes these injuries, their symptoms, treatment methods available as well as how you can prevent them.
Types of Ligament Injuries
Ligament injuries occur when joints are stretched beyond their normal range of motion. They mostly affect the knees and ankles, since those joints are involved in almost all activities, from walking, running, and standing among others. Ligament injuries fall under 3 main categories: grade 1, grade 2, and grade 3. Grade 1 ligament injuries are mild. In this case, the ligament is usually stressed but it’s still intact. Minimal bleeding might occur, accompanied by mild pain and swelling. However, the joints are still stable, and you can still walk. Grade 2 injuries involve the rupturing of the ligaments. When that happens, there will be moderate bleeding, increased pain and severe inflammation. You might not be able to walk when you have a grade 2 ligament injury. In grade 3, there is complete tearing of the ligaments, which results in severe pain and swelling as well as extensive bleeding. Individuals with a grade 3 ligament injury cannot walk or stand. The affected joint is completely unstable.
Predisposing Factors for Ligament Injuries
As much as no one is immune from ligament injuries, some factors can put you at a higher risk. For instance, women are at a higher risk of getting ligament injuries, especially ACL tears, compared to men. This can be attributed to differences in genetics, anatomy, body strength as well as jumping and landing patterns. Also, participating in various sports like soccer, basketball, volleyball, football, and tennis can increase the risk of ligament injuries. These sports require sudden and frequent acceleration and deceleration, pivoting, and pivoting. Also, due to their physical nature, you can trip, fall, and land awkwardly, leading to torn ligaments. Individuals who have had ligament injuries in the past are also at a high risk of these injuries, even after full recovery. Also, most ligament injuries tend to occur between the ages of 15 and 45, mainly due to the active lifestyle of people in this age group. However, as much as you might have a risk factor for ligament injuries, it doesn’t mean that you will struggle with them your entire life.
If you have experienced pain, swelling, discomfort when walking, or joint instability, you should visit a physician right away. The physician will examine the affected area and check whether there is any tenderness, swelling or inflammation. If you are experiencing pain in your ankle or knee, the doctor might compare the affected leg with the uninjured one. They might also move knee or ankle into various positions to examine your overall joint function or range of motion. In most situations, physical examination should be enough to determine the extent of the problem. However, your physician might also decide to conduct further tests to determine the extent of the injury and to rule out other causes. Some of the additional diagnostic tests that might be conducted include X-rays, MRI scans and ultrasound. X-rays will be conducted to rule out bone fractures while ultrasound tests might be required to check for the severity of the injuries in the muscles, tendons and ligaments of the affected area.
Treatment and Recovery
Treatment and recovery for ligament injuries usually depend on the severity of the problem and its location. Grade I tears normally heal within a few weeks. The individual will then regain maximal ligament strength after six weeks or so, once the collagen muscles have fully matured. If you have a Grade I ligament injury, you should rest and avoid painful activity as much as possible. Apart from enough rest, applying ice to the affected area will also provide some pain relief. Ice will also minimize inflammation while minimizing the amount of blood flowing to the injured area. When applying ice to the affected area, you should not apply it directly to the skin, as you might end up with ice burns. Instead, you should wrap in a paper towel and then apply. Ice should be applied to the affected area for 15 to 20 minutes and not longer than that. Compression therapy is also commonly used to treat grade I ligament injuries. Compression therapy involves wrapping the affected area using a bandage, which helps to ease pain and inflammation. Physiotherapy can also help to speed up the recovery process, using a combination of exercise, massage and electrical modalities. It’s always advisable to consult a physician before you attempt any of the above home therapies.
Grade II sprains tend to be more painful and serious than a grade I sprain. If you have been diagnosed with a grade II ligament injury, then load protection will be needed, especially during the early healing and recovery phase. If you are suffering from anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), heel ligament injuries or plantar fasciitis, then your physician might recommend a weight-bearing brace. On the other hand, if it’s a spinal ligament injury, then your doctor might recommend supportive taping. These support mechanisms will help to alleviate pain and preventing stretching during the healing and recovery period. Your physician or physiotherapist will help you to choose the best support mechanism. Once the affected joint is stable, you can go back to normal activity. This should take approximately 6 to 12 weeks, based on the sports activity that you want to resume and the extent of the injury. However, you should always consult your physician before you resume any heavy physical activity.
If you are suffering from a grade III ligament injury, then you need to see an orthopedic surgeon. The surgeon will determine whether you should under early surgical repair or not. In case you undergo surgery, then your rehabilitation and recovery will be overseen by both a physiotherapist and your surgeon. For grade III recovery will take a longer period, compared to grade I and II. Depending on the severity of your injury, you may not resume full level activity for 4 to 12 months. Some severe injuries might even take longer than that for a full recovery. Therefore, it’s highly advisable to consult an orthopedic surgeon or a physiotherapist, if you have been diagnosed with a grade III ligament injury.
Preventing Ligament Injuries
As noted above, ligament injuries can sideline you for 3 weeks to 12 months or even longer, depending on their severity. As much as you cannot completely avoid them, you can minimize their occurrence using the following steps:
- Strength training: Weakened ligaments, bones, and tendons significantly increase the risk of ligament injuries and tears. Therefore, strength training that targets areas prone to these injuries, can help to enhance their resilience. Plyometrics such as single-leg jumps, double leg jumps, and ladder drills, are among the exercises that can help to strengthen your legs, knees and feet ligaments, to prevent the occurrence of ligament injuries.
- Proper balance: Most ligament injuries, especially those that affect the knees, ankles, and feet, occur due to sudden stops or quick change of direction, a collision or even a faulty landing. Therefore, improving body balance, as well as strengthening the small muscles in these areas, can help to minimize unnatural twists, which usually cause ligament tears.
- Warm up properly before games: Cold and stiff muscles and ligaments are more vulnerable to various ligament injuries. Therefore, warming up properly before you participate in any intense physical activity, will help to loosen these muscles and ligaments, which will, in turn, prevent or minimize the severity of ligament injuries. Make sure you focus on exercises that will stretch your knees, ankles, calves, hip muscles and other areas that are prone to ligament tears.
- Wear proper shoes: Exercising or training with an ill-fitting pair of shoes can affect your balance while increasing the likelihood of twists, trips, slips and falls, which may result in ligament tears. Therefore, whether you are running, playing soccer, or lifting weights in the gym, make sure you are wearing the right pair of shoes, designed for your sport or activity.
Apart from the above approaches, you can also minimize the occurrence of ligament injuries through proper rest. Just because you have a packed schedule of practice sessions or games doesn’t mean that you should not rest. Your body needs ample rest and recovery. Without proper rest, your technique might get poor and you will end up damaging the muscles and ligaments in your back, legs, and feet. It’s, therefore, important to make sure you have adequate rest in between the games. Also, alternating hard training sessions with easier training sessions can help to reduce the risk of ligament injuries.
As much as ligament injuries are quite common among athletes, it doesn’t mean that you should treat them lightly. Without proper medical attention, these injuries might become severe, leading to bigger problems in the future. Therefore, if you’ve started experiencing sudden pain in your ankles, knees, feet or spine after participating in strenuous physical activities, it’s highly advisable to consult a physician immediately.