Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL) Tears: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

MCL tears are a common knee injury, often occurring in sports like football, basketball, and skiing. While these tears can be treated without surgery in most cases, surgical options are available. In this article, we will explore what MCL tears are, their symptoms, causes, diagnosis, treatment options, and recovery.

What is an MCL Tear?

An MCL tear refers to damage to the medial collateral ligament, a crucial ligament located on the inner side of the knee. The tear can be either partial, involving a few torn ligament fibers, or complete, resulting in the ligament being torn into two pieces. Ligaments are strong bands of tissue that connect bones or hold organs in place.

The MCL is an important ligament that provides strength and stability to the knee joint. It connects the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia).

Along with the MCL, there are three other primary ligaments in the knee: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the lateral collateral ligament (LCL), and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL).

Types of MCL Tears

MCL tears are categorized into three grades:

  1. Grade 1: A mild tear with less than 10% of the ligament fibers torn. The knee remains stable, but tenderness and mild pain may be experienced.
  2. Grade 2: A moderate tear where the MCL is partially torn, typically involving the superficial part. The knee may feel loose, and intense pain and tenderness may be present along the inner side of the knee.
  3. Grade 3: A severe tear where the MCL is completely torn, including both the superficial and deep parts. The knee becomes very unstable and loose, causing intense pain and tenderness. Grade 3 tears often coincide with other knee injuries, such as damage to the ACL.

Symptoms of an MCL Tear

The symptoms of an MCL tear can vary based on the severity of the tear. Common signs and symptoms include:

  1. Hearing a popping sound at the time of the injury.
  2. Pain in the knee.
  3. Tenderness along the inner side of the knee.
  4. Stiffness and swelling in the knee.
  5. Feeling of instability or the knee giving out when weight is put on it.
  6. Locking or catching sensation in the knee joint.

Causes of MCL Tears

MCL tears commonly occur due to sudden and forceful twisting or turning movements, especially during sports activities. Direct blows to the outer side of the knee can also lead to MCL tears. Some common causes include:

  1. Forcefully shifting direction while the foot is planted (“cutting” in sports).
  2. Impact to the knee from the outer side, such as in football tackles.
  3. Squatting or lifting heavy objects.
  4. Awkward landings after a jump.
  5. Overextending (hyperextending) the knee, often seen in skiing.
  6. Repetitive pressure and stress on the knee, causing the MCL to lose elasticity.

Diagnosing an MCL Tear

Healthcare providers can usually diagnose an MCL tear through a physical examination of the knee. Additional imaging tests may be recommended to assess the severity of the tear and check for other associated injuries. The following tests are commonly used:

  1. Physical exam: Evaluating pain, tenderness, and stability of the knee, often by applying stress to the MCL.
  2. MRI (Magnetic Resonance Imaging): Detailed images of the knee to assess the extent of the MCL tear and identify any additional soft tissue injuries.
  3. Ultrasound: Sound waves used to visualize the severity of the MCL tear and other knee injuries.
  4. X-ray: Used to rule out fractures or other bony injuries in the knee.

Treating an MCL Tear

Non-surgical treatment is the primary approach for most MCL tears due to the ligament’s good blood supply, promoting natural healing. Non-surgical treatment options include:

  1. RICE method: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. These steps help reduce pain and swelling.
  2. Pain relievers: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) can alleviate pain and reduce swelling.
  3. Knee brace: Stabilizes the knee, allowing the MCL to heal.
  4. Crutches: Reduce weight-bearing on the affected knee.
  5. Physical therapy: Exercises to improve strength and range of motion, tailored to the individual’s sport and movements.

Surgical intervention is considered for professional athletes or individuals with other simultaneous knee injuries. Surgery aims to repair or reconstruct the torn MCL using grafts from the patient’s body or a donor. Recovery time after surgery depends on various factors, including tear severity, surgical procedure, and individual health.

Can an MCL Tear Heal Without Surgery?

Grade 1 tears (minor tears) can typically heal within one to three weeks with rest. Grade 2 and grade 3 tears (moderate to severe tears) require appropriate treatment, including rest, knee bracing, and physical therapy, to promote healing. Seeking medical attention promptly after a knee injury is essential.

Risk Factors for MCL Tears: The risk of MCL tears increases if you participate in specific sports like football, soccer, or skiing, or if you have previously experienced an MCL tear.

Preventing MCL Tears: While not all MCL tears are preventable, certain measures can help reduce the risk. Balance, strength, and power exercises targeting the thigh and hip muscles can lower the chances of MCL tears. For football linemen, using braces has shown to be effective in preventing MCL injuries.

Prognosis and Recovery Time: Properly treated MCL tears generally heal well, with rare complications. Most athletes can return to their sport once the injury has healed. Recovery time depends on the severity of the tear, ranging from weeks for grade 1 and 2 tears to six weeks or more for grade 3 tears. Surgical intervention and additional knee injuries can prolong recovery.

Self-Care for MCL Tears: It is crucial to follow the healthcare provider’s instructions for treatment, including physical therapy exercises and prescribed medications. Adhering closely to the treatment plan enhances the healing process of the MCL.

When to Seek Medical Attention: If you experience a knee injury, it is essential to consult a healthcare provider promptly. They will evaluate the injury, reduce swelling, and determine an appropriate treatment plan.

Questions to Ask Your Doctor

If you have an MCL tear, consider discussing the following questions with your healthcare provider:

  1. What grade of MCL tear do I have?
  2. What treatment options are available for my MCL tear?
  3. How long is the expected recovery time?
  4. Which medications should I take for pain and swelling?
  5. Do I need to consult a specialist or a sports medicine specialist?
  6. When can I safely return to my sport?
  7. What are the pros and cons of surgery for repairing my MCL tear?


MCL tears are common knee injuries, often affecting athletes engaged in sports involving sudden movements or impacts. Most MCL tears can be effectively treated without surgery, using non-surgical approaches like rest, bracing, and physical therapy.

Surgical options are available for severe tears or accompanying knee injuries. Seeking medical attention promptly and following the prescribed treatment plan are vital for a successful recovery and a safe return to physical activities.


Who is Prone to MCL Tears?

MCL tears can occur at any age, but they are particularly common among athletes participating in sports like football, rugby, basketball, and skiing.

How Common are MCL Tears?

MCL tears account for approximately 40% of all knee ligament injuries, making them the most frequently encountered knee ligament injury.

Can You Walk with a Torn MCL?

The ability to walk with a torn MCL depends on the grade of the tear. With a grade 1 tear, walking may still be possible, though painful. Grade 2 tears make walking difficult due to reduced knee stability. Grade 3 tears result in significant instability and pain, often making walking unbearable. It is crucial to seek medical attention even if you can still walk after a knee injury.

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