What is a Knee Sprain?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

There are four ligaments around the knee that can significantly stretch or even tear, resulting in a knee sprain. One or more of the ligaments can be damaged at time of injury, and severity of symptoms may depend on the degree of stretching or tearing and the number of ligaments involved. It’s hard to determine recovery time or treatment necessary for the generic term, knee sprain. Instead, with diagnosis of extent of injury, doctors recommend treatment and advise on length of recovery needed before the knee will heal.

Soccer players are prone to knee strains.
Soccer players are prone to knee strains.

Causes of a knee sprain are variable. People can sprain their knees while engaging in rigorous physical activity like running or jumping. Any sudden moves that twist the knee could result in ligament stretching. There are plenty of sports where people run or jump and stop or twist quickly like basketball, football, gymnastics, and soccer that are know for their ability to cause sprains. A hit to the knee is another way a sprain can occur, and again such hits can occur in sporting events or in other circumstances, like innocent horsing around at home. It’s not always possible to avoid all ways to get a knee sprain, though people who regularly engage in sports may be taught ways to protect the knees as they move, which aren’t always completely successful.

Medication can help with pain from a knee sprain.
Medication can help with pain from a knee sprain.

If a knee sprain occurs there are different symptoms people might feel, including severe pain at the knee. It’s not unusual to hear a “pop” noise exactly when a sprain occurs. Some people feel their knee buckle, as if it can no longer bear their weight. Range of motion could be affected, and within a short while of injury the knee may be swollen and could be bruised.

Knee wraps may help treat knee sprains.
Knee wraps may help treat knee sprains.

Initial treatment for a knee sprain involves the R.I.C.E. method. The knee should be rested, iced, possibly wrapped to limit motion, and elevated. People should make plans to proceed to a doctor, because it may be impossible to tell extent of damage to the ligaments from the outside of the knee. Even degree of pain may not be a good indicator because people have different levels of pain tolerance.

An ice pack applied to the knee will provide pain relief and reduce inflammation.
An ice pack applied to the knee will provide pain relief and reduce inflammation.

At a hospital, doctors can perform an x-ray or other scans to evaluate the knee, looking particularly for either fractures or ligament damage. If only one ligament is stretched this is usually called a mild sprain. Two or more ligaments that are stretched are termed severe sprains, and any tearing might be called a ligament tear. Evaluation of injury helps to determine treatment needed.

X-rays might be used to evaluate a knee sprain to look for fractures or ligament injury.
X-rays might be used to evaluate a knee sprain to look for fractures or ligament injury.

For a mild knee sprain, people might be told to rest the knee for several days or a few weeks and gradually resume physical activity. Severe sprains might require more resting time, immobilization of the knee with a brace, and physical therapy to help the knee recover fully. Ligament tears, especially large ones, usually need to be repaired surgically. Recovery will then involve rest and physical therapy for a set period of time to restore knee function.

Cheerleaders perform highly athletic movements that can lead to knee strain.
Cheerleaders perform highly athletic movements that can lead to knee strain.
Rigorous physical activities like running and jumping can cause knee sprains.
Rigorous physical activities like running and jumping can cause knee sprains.
Severe sprains may require physical therapy to help the knee recover.
Severe sprains may require physical therapy to help the knee recover.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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