Knee injuries are common in all sports, but football tackles and pile ups put this vulnerable joint at great risk. When Rodney Harrison, the New England Patriot safety, went down with a knee injury, the Boston Globe reported that he had suffered a right medial collateral ligament (MCL) injury.
While this sounds very technical, it is actually a common knee strain for athletes of all types and abilities and non-athletes as well.
You can find the location of such an injury. Reach down on either knee, with your hand on the inside of your knee where your thigh bone (femur) and your shin bone (tibia) connect; your hand is over the MCL. The job of ligaments in general is just to strap two bones together. Ligaments are tough strands of tissue, like the strings on a violin bow, with very poor blood supply, so they don’t heal quickly. Ligaments aren’t especially elastic, so they tend to tear instead of stretching like muscle. If a ligament is completely torn, it is usually surgically repaired. If it is partially torn, it will take time to scar down. Immobilizing the joint in a brace helps with this process.
When the ligament has healed, the muscles need to be overly strengthened around the joint to assist with the stability lost by injury of the ligament. Often a sports brace can be worn to also limit motion in a particular direction. In the case of the medial collateral ligament—because it straps the thigh and shin together on the inside of the leg—you can picture how it would prevent the knee joint from allowing the shin bone to move sideways (laterally), outwards.
That injury to the MCL occurs when a force is applied to the outside of the knee causing the inside (medial) part of the knee to buckle. This can happen when tackles come from either side or if someone falls on top of a player who has landed on his side, with his knee off the ground, but the inside of the ankle of his top leg on the ground, so that the leg rests at an angle.
Rehabilitating ligament injuries of athletes, whether they have been totally ruptured and surgically repaired or just healed with immobilization, takes the athlete’s commitment and perseverance. Repetition of strength and balance and stretching exercises, in water and on land, while also keeping the rest of the body fit, is part of the initial steps of rehab. You can then advance to more aggressive plyometrics (jumping drills) and cutting and running drills that are designed to simulate motions in an actual game.
With today’s advances in bracing, surgical techniques and rehabilitation, injuries that were once considered career ending can be overcome. Even for non-athletes, a sprained joint doesn’t have to slow you down if it is properly diagnosed and rehabbed.