Ligaments are bands of tissue that help hold bones, joints and organs in place. They can also stretch and twist, and can be torn. Ligament injuries are very common, especially in the ankle and knee. They can happen when you twist your body or a joint, and when you make sudden movements or jump. People who participate in sports that require quick changes of direction, or who play on uneven surfaces are at greater risk for ligament injury.
Ligament injuries can range from mild to severe, depending on how the injury is diagnosed and treated. The most common symptoms are pain, swelling and tenderness in the affected area. You may also have difficulty moving or putting weight on the affected leg.
In addition to x-rays, doctors can diagnose ligament injury by using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). This test uses large magnets and radio waves to make detailed images of organs and structures inside your body, including bones and ligaments. The MRI scan allows the doctor to see if there is a tear in a ligament or other damage to a bone, tendon or muscle. This test is usually safe for most people.
An MRI is often used in the diagnosis of ligament injuries because it is noninvasive, does not expose you to radiation and provides very detailed information about the injured area. The MRI can help the doctor decide what treatment is best for you.
If a ligament is completely torn, surgery is needed to repair the injury. The surgery involves placing a tendon graft in the damaged area to help keep the knee together. The tendon can be taken from another part of your body (known as an autograft) or from a donor. The procedure is performed through small incisions in the knee.
After surgery, physical therapy is usually recommended to improve strength, stability and range of motion in the knee. The physical therapist can create an individualized plan for you that will gradually increase the amount of time you spend in activities that require use of the knee.
Ligament injuries can cause instability in a joint, which can affect the cartilage and other tissues in the joint, tendons, muscles, discs (if involved with spine joints) and nerves. Instable joints can also change the pressure within the joint capsule, alter the muscular activity pattern around the joint, decrease joint proprioception and lead to long-term problems like osteoarthritis, joint stiffness and disability (Solomonow, 2009). In addition, the resulting chronic injury may also result in incomplete healing or differences in new ligament tissue that can contribute to continued instability and predispose the joint to future injury. A new generation of therapeutic approaches aimed at improving the ability of ligaments and tendons to heal and remodel themselves have shown promise. These include gene therapeutic methods to introduce growth factors that can promote regeneration, and cell-based therapies that can promote the differentiation of new ligament cells and tendons. These therapies are currently being evaluated for clinical application.