LCL Tear

Written by Tele Demetrious, Physiotherapist, BPhysio(Hons)
Reviewed by Brett Harrop, APA Sports Physiotherapist, BPhysio(Hons), MPhysio(Sports Physio)

InjuriesKneeLCL Tear

(Also known as a LCL Tear, LCL Injury, Torn LCL, Lateral Collateral Ligament Tear, LCL Sprain, Sprained LCL, Ruptured LCL)

What is a LCL tear?

A LCL tear is a relatively common sporting injury affecting the knee and is characterized by tearing of the Lateral Collateral Ligament of the knee (LCL).

A ligament is a strong band of connective tissue which attaches bone to bone. The LCL is situated at the outer aspect of the knee joint and is responsible for joining the outer aspect of the femur (thigh bone) to the outer aspect of the fibula (outer lower leg bone) (figure 1).

Anatomy of a LCL tear and lateral collateral ligament

Figure 1 – Anatomy of an LCL tear

The LCL is one of the most important ligaments of the knee, giving it stability. The LCL achieves this role by preventing excessive twisting, and side to side movements of the knee (varus forces – figure 2). When these movements are excessive and beyond what the ligament can withstand, tearing to the LCL occurs. This condition is known as a LCL tear.

Varus force involved in a LCL tear

Figure 2 – Varus force (often involved in a LCL tear)

A LCL tear may range from a small partial tear resulting in minimal pain, to a complete rupture of the LCL resulting in significant pain and disability. A LCL tear can be graded as follows:

  • Grade 1 tear: a small number of fibres are torn resulting in some pain but allowing full function
  • Grade 2 tear: a significant number of fibres are torn with moderate loss of function.
  • Grade 3 tear: all fibres are ruptured resulting in knee instability and significant loss of function. Other structures may also be injured such as the menisci or cruciate ligaments.

Causes of a LCL tear

LCL tears typically occur during activities placing excessive strain on the LCL. This generally occurs suddenly due to a specific incident, however, occasionally may occur due to repetitive strain. There are two main movements that place stress on the LCL, these include:

  • twisting of the knee
  • varus forces on the knee (figure 2)

When these movements (or combination of these movements) are excessive and beyond what the LCL can withstand tearing of the ligament may occur.

LCL tears are frequently seen in contact sports or sports requiring rapid changes in direction. These may include: football, netball, basketball and downhill skiing. The usual mechanism of injury is a twisting movement when weight-bearing (especially when landing from a jump) or due to a collision to the inner knee, forcing the knee to bend in the wrong direction (such as another player falling across the inside of the knee). Occasionally a LCL tear may occur gradually due to repetitive activities placing strain on the ligament.

Signs and Symptoms of a LCL tear

Patients with this condition may notice an audible snap or tearing sound at the time of injury. In minor cases, patients may be able to continue activity only to experience an increase in pain, swelling and stiffness in the knee after activity with rest (particularly first thing in the morning). Often the pain associated with a torn LCL is localized to the outer aspect of the knee.

In cases of a complete rupture of the LCL, pain is usually severe at the time of injury, however, may sometimes quickly subside. Patients may also experience a feeling of the knee going out and then going back in as well as a rapid onset of swelling (within the first few hours following injury). Patients with a complete rupture of the LCL generally can not continue activity due to pain or the knee feeling unstable. Occasionally, the patient may be unable to weight bear at the time of injury due to pain and may develop bruising and knee stiffness over the coming days.

Diagnosis of a LCL tear

A thorough subjective and objective examination from a physiotherapist is usually sufficient to diagnose a LCL tear. Investigations such as an X-ray, MRI scan or CT scan may be required to confirm diagnosis and determine the extent of damage or involvement of other structures within the knee.

Treatment for a LCL tear

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Prognosis of a LCL tear

With appropriate management, most patients with a minor to moderate LCL tear (grades 1 and 2) can return to sport or normal activity within 2 – 8 weeks. Patients with a complete rupture of the LCL will require a longer period of rehabilitation to gain optimum function. Patients who also have damage to other structures of the knee such as the meniscus or cruciate ligaments are likely to have an extended rehabilitation period.

Physiotherapy for a LCL tear

Physiotherapy for patients with this condition is vital to hasten the healing process, ensure an optimal outcome and reduce the likelihood of future recurrence. Treatment may comprise:

  • soft tissue massage
  • joint mobilization
  • taping
  • bracing
  • ice or heat treatment
  • electrotherapy (e.g. ultrasound)
  • anti-inflammatory advice
  • exercises to improve flexibility, strength and balance
  • hydrotherapy
  • education
  • activity modification advice
  • crutches prescription
  • biomechanical correction
  • a gradual return to activity program

Other intervention for a LCL tear

Despite appropriate physiotherapy management, a small percentage of patients with this condition do not improve adequately. When this occurs the treating physiotherapist or doctor can advise on the best course of management. This may involve further investigation such as an X-ray, CT scan or MRI, or a review by a specialist who can advise on any procedures that may be appropriate to improve the condition. Surgical reconstruction of the LCL may be required in rare cases of a complete LCL rupture when conservative measures fail.

Exercises for a LCL tear

The following exercises are commonly prescribed to patients with a LCL tear. You should discuss the suitability of these exercises with your physiotherapist prior to beginning them. Generally, they should be performed 3 times daily and only provided they do not cause or increase symptoms.

Your physiotherapist can advise when it is appropriate to begin the initial exercises and eventually progress to the intermediate and advanced exercises. As a general rule, addition of exercises should take place provided there is no increase in symptoms.

Initial Exercises

Knee Bend to Straighten

Bend and straighten your knee as far as possible and comfortable without increasing your pain (figure 3). Repeat 10 – 20 times provided there is no increase in symptoms.

Exercises for an LCL Tear - Knee Bend to Straighten

Figure 3 – Knee Bend to Straighten (right leg)

Static Quadriceps Contraction

Tighten the muscle at the front of your thigh (quadriceps) by pushing your knee down into a towel (figure 4). Put your fingers on your inner quadriceps to feel the muscle tighten during contraction. Hold for 5 seconds and repeat 10 times as hard as possible without increasing your symptoms.

Exercises for an LCL Tear - Static Quadriceps Contraction

Figure 4 – Static quadriceps contraction (left leg)

Intermediate Exercises

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Advanced Exercises

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Rehabilitation Protocol for a LCL tear

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Physiotherapy products for a LCL tear

Some of the most commonly recommended products by physiotherapists to hasten healing and speed recovery in patients with this condition include:

  1. Knee Braces
  2. Crutches
  3. Ice packs or hot packs
  4. Protective Tape
  5. Foam Rollers (for self massage)
  6. Spikey Massage Balls (for self massage)
  7. Resistance Band (for strengthening exercises)

To purchase physiotherapy products for a lateral collateral ligament tear click on one of the above links or visit the PhysioAdvisor Shop

Find a Physio for a LCL tear

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