Knee Sprain

What is a knee sprain?

A knee sprain occurs when one or more ligaments in your knee are suddenly stretched or torn. Ligaments are tissues that hold bones together. Ligaments support the knee and keep the joint and bones lined up. They help you to be able to walk, twist and turn. There are 4 ligaments that help support the knee. Ask your caregiver which of these ligaments was sprained in your knee. Ligaments are often sprained because of an exercise or sports-related injury. Treatment and recovery time depend on the type and cause of the knee sprain.

What causes a knee sprain?

  • Movements that cause stress on the knee: Sprains may be caused by movements that are not normal for the knee. These movements include doing sports that cause you to plant your foot and quickly turn at the knee. They include running and stopping or changing direction suddenly, and jumping and landing. They include any activities that cause quick or sudden twisting at the knees. Activities that cause your knee to extend more than normal can cause a sprain. Sprains commonly occur in sports such as football, basketball, hockey, and skiing.

  • Direct hits to the knee: Sprains may be caused by knocks or hits to the front, sides, or back of the knees. Sprains may be caused by tripping and falling onto your knees while they are bent. You can get a sprain from being forcefully knocked to the ground, such as during a football tackle.

What are the signs and symptoms of a knee sprain?

  • Stiffness or decreased movement

  • Pain or tenderness

  • Painful pop that you can hear or feel

  • Swelling or bruising

  • Knee that buckles or gives out when you try to walk

How is a knee sprain diagnosed?

A caregiver will examine your knee and ask you questions about your activities. You may need x-rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). These tests will show a picture of the bones and tissues inside your knee. Caregivers can do these tests to learn if you have a broken bone or soft tissue damage.

How is a knee sprain treated?

Treatment includes controlling your pain and swelling first, then beginning rehabilitation. Rehabilitation includes physical therapy exercises. These may be done over a number of weeks or months to help you return to your regular sports and activities. Your treatment plan may include one or more of the following:

  • Rest: The most important part of treating a knee injury is resting your knee. You may be told to keep weight off your knee. This means that you should not walk on your injured leg. Rest helps decrease swelling and allows the injury to heal. When the pain decreases, begin normal, slow movements.

  • Ice: Ice causes blood vessels to constrict (get small) which helps decrease swelling, pain, and redness. Put crushed ice in a plastic bag or use a bag of frozen corn or peas. Cover it with a towel. Put this on your knee for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times each day. Do this for 2 to 3 days or until the pain goes away. Do not sleep on the ice pack because you can get frostbite.

  • Compress: You may need to wear an elastic bandage. This helps keep your injured knee from moving too much while it heals. You can loosen or tighten the elastic bandage to make it comfortable. It should be tight enough for you to feel support. It should not be so tight that it causes your toes to be numb or tingly. If you are wearing an elastic bandage, take it off and rewrap it once a day.

  • Elevate: Lie down and raise your knee to a level above your heart to help decrease the swelling.

  • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain or fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children under 6 months of age without direction from your child's doctor.

  • Brace: You may need to wear a brace to keep your injured knee from moving too much while it heals. Use your brace as directed by your caregiver. You may remove your brace each day to bathe. Put your brace back on as soon as possible after bathing. Move your toes and foot several times an hour to prevent joint stiffness while wearing a brace.

  • Crutches: You may be given crutches to use until you can stand on your injured leg without pain.

  • Heat: After 2 or 3 days, you may try using heat to decrease knee pain and stiffness. Use a hot water bottle, heating pad, whirlpool, or warm, moist compress. To make a compress, dip a clean washcloth in warm water. Wring out the extra water and put it on your knee for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 to 4 times each day.

  • Rehabilitation exercises:

    • Your caregiver may want you to go to physical therapy. A physical therapist can do treatments and exercises to help your knees heal and move better. Your caregiver or a physical therapist may teach you exercises to do at home. You may be told to start doing these exercises once your pain and swelling have decreased. Exercises are important for preventing stiffness, decreasing swelling, and helping your normal knee movement to return. You may be told to do these exercises 2 or 3 times each day.

    • As your knee continues to heal, you will learn new exercises to help strengthen and stretch your knee. You may use equipment including weights, exercise bikes, and treadmills to help make the muscles around your knee stronger. The muscles around your knee are the calf, thigh, and ankle muscles. Making these muscles strong can help support your knee and protect your knee from more injury. Following your rehabilitation plan as directed by your caregivers will help you return to your usual activities sooner.

  • Drainage of extra fluid from your knee: Caregivers may use a needle to drain fluid from your knee. Removing the extra fluid may help your knee heal faster. The fluid may be sent to a lab and checked for infection.

  • Surgery: If a knee ligament is torn, you may need surgery. During surgery, caregivers can replace a torn ligament.

How can I take care of my knees and help prevent another knee sprain?

Knee sprains often cannot be prevented, but doing the following may help protect your knee from injury:

  • Always ask your caregiver before you start exercising. Do not start exercising until your caregiver says it is okay. If you start exercising too soon after your knee sprain, you may damage your knee more. This can lead to long-term knee problems.

  • Slowly start your exercise or sports training program as directed by your caregiver. Slowly increase time, distance, and training. Sudden increases in training may cause you to injure your knee again.

  • Ask your caregiver if you should wear a brace to support and protect your knee during training.

  • Warm up and stretch before exercising. Warm up by walking or using an exercise bike before starting your regular exercise. Do gentle stretches after warming up. This helps to loosen your muscles and decrease stress on your knee. Cool down and stretch after exercising.

  • Keep your leg muscles strong. Having strong calf, thigh and ankle muscles can help support your knee. Your caregiver can help you plan an exercise program to build your leg muscles and keep them strong.

  • Wear shoes that fit correctly and support your feet. Replace your running or exercise shoes before the padding or shock absorption is worn out. Ask your caregiver which exercise shoes are best for you. Ask if you should wear special shoe inserts. Shoe inserts can help support your heels and arches or keep your foot lined up correctly in your shoes. Exercise on flat surfaces.

  • Wear protective equipment. If you are playing a sport, wear the right type of protective gear. For example, wear pads and a helmet for football or hockey. Keep yourself in good physical shape to decrease the chance of injury while playing your sport.

  • Stay at a normal weight. Ask your caregiver what weight is right for you. Ask for information about eating a healthy diet to help stay at the best weight for you.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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