On December 9, 2012, during week 14 of the 2012-13 NFL season, Robert Griffin III was the quarterback for the Washington Redskins as they played the Baltimore Ravens. RGIII, as he was known in the league, was having a fantastic season by all standards, throwing for almost 3,000 yards during the first 13 weeks of the season.

But late in the fourth quarter, he suffered a nasty hit to his knee at the hands of Ravens’ defensive tackle Haroti Ngata. He ultimately came back into the game after sitting out for a play, but the damage was done. He had an LCL injury.

Despite the injury, RGIII only sat out for one game before playing two more. In doing so, he helped to secure his team’s spot in the playoffs, but it was clear his playing ability was compromised. Finally, during the wildcard game against the Seattle Seahawks on January 6, 2013, Griffin’s knee gave out entirely, and he underwent knee reconstruction surgery in the off-season to repair the badly-injured joint.

What is an LCL injury and what does having one mean for your athletic career?

What Is an LCL?

Your LCL is your lateral collateral ligament. It’s located on the outside of the knee and connects your thigh bone to the smaller bone in your shin, helping to join the top and bottom portions of your leg. Its purpose is to keep the knee stable while you’re moving, which is what makes it invaluable to athletes.

Causes of an LCL Injury

The typical LCL injury is a result of a hit to the inside of the knee. Putting force on the knee from that angle can cause the LCL to overstretch or even tear.

Although repeated stress on the knee in the course of everyday life can ultimately cause an LCL injury to the average person, these types of injuries most often occur in athletes. Athletes playing sports like basketball or soccer that require a lot of quick stopping and turning are the ones that most often suffer injuries to their LCL. However, athletes playing sports that have hard collisions as a course of the game, like football, are also at higher risk for injuries to their knee ligaments.

Symptoms That You Have Hurt Your LCL

Like all injuries, your body will give you signs that you have hurt your LCL. Here are six symptoms you might experience in your knee if you have an LCL injury:

  1. Lack of stability
  2. Stiffness
  3. Pain (can range from mild to severe)
  4. Swelling
  5. Joint locks when you move
  6. Tenderness on the outside of the knee

You can also use our Symptoms Checker to see what the symptoms you’re having might mean.

Grades of an LCL Injury

Similar to other sprain-like injuries to ligaments in other parts of your body, damage to the LCL is graded on three levels. Your doctor will likely order an X-ray, an MRI, or maybe even both to determine what level your tear is.

  1. Grade 1 – This is the mildest form of an LCL injury. At this level, the ligament has overstretched but not completely torn. Instead, it has sustained tiny tears which don’t significantly affect the function of the knee or your ability to walk, run, and play sports. You may notice some tenderness or minor pain at this level.
  2. Grade 2 – This is the moderate level of an LCL injury. At this level, the tears mentioned in Grade 1 have become more substantial, but the ligament itself is still intact. There is likely some swelling, and pain and tenderness become much more significant. You can still walk, but it’s possible the knee will give out while walking because the tears have compromised the knee’s stability.
  3. Grade 3 – This is the most severe form of an injury to your LCL. At this stage, the ligament is completely torn. It might also be separated from the knee at the bone. Often when the LCL is grade three, the ACL (anterior cruciate ligament) may also be compromised. At this point, the knee is extremely painful, tender, and unstable. Swelling is also much more prominent.

Treatments for an LCL Injury

Treatments vary for an overstretched or torn LCL depending on the severity of the injury. The more severe the injury, the more likely that surgical intervention will be necessary.

Grades 1 and 2 – As noted, these levels can be painful but surgery is not typically required at this point. Your body can usually still heal on its own within a couple of months with proper adherence to doctor’s orders. Here are the general treatments your doctor may recommend for LCL injuries of these grades.

  • Follow the RICE Rule
    • Rest your injured knee
    • Ice the knee to reduce swelling
    • Compress the swollen area with a brace or elastic bandage
    • Elevate the knee to keep swelling down  

If you’re experiencing pain, doctors usually recommend treating it with over-the-counter ibuprofen, which can also help reduce any swelling you have. You can generally begin physical therapy (or strengthening exercises on your own) once your swelling and pain have subsided. You can expect to continue with the therapy for about a month to complete healing.

Grade 3 – Because the ligament has completely torn at this level, surgery may be required. The type and extent of the operation depend on the kind of tear that you have.

  • If the tear occurred at either the thighbone or the leg bone, your doctor would reattach the ligament to the bone using staples or even stitches.
  • If the tear occurred in the middle of the ligament, your doctor will typically make a small incision and sew the ends of the tear back together.
  • If your injury resulted in a ligament damaged to the point that repair is impossible, the doctor might decide to use a graft of a different tendon to build you a new ligament entirely. This kind of repair is a much more extensive surgery, requiring an open-knee operation.

Prognosis for an LCL Injury

The overall prognosis for people who experience an injury to their LCL is excellent. The vast majority of people can expect to have full mobility and use of their injured knee as soon as healing has occurred. It’s only a matter of time.

And that’s the one question that most athletes with a diagnosis of “torn ligament in knee” have after suffering the injury: when can I participate in my sport again? The answer differs, again depending on the grade of the injury.

Grade 1 – You will likely only be out of your sport for a couple of weeks at most. You’ll just want to take it easy to let it heal, and if you follow the RICE rule, you should be fine in a short amount of time.

Grade 2 You may be out up to a month, depending on how quickly your symptoms diminish. You’ll want to consult with your doctor to determine what the MRI or X-ray says about how severe the partial tear is, and let him or her guide you on how long you’ll need to keep up with the therapy or exercises.

Grade 3 You could potentially be out much longer. It will depend on the type of surgery that you have and how extensive it is. It might take months before your torn LCL heals and you’re able to use your knee fully and participate in sports again.

As always, with any injury you experience, it’s important to consult your physician before self-treating. Only your doctor can determine if you have indeed injured your LCL and what grade the injury is. You’ll want to follow the advice of your doctor – and potentially your physical therapist – to make sure that your knee has the proper amount of time and the right treatment(s) to fully heal and allow you to get back to the sport you love.

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