Can You Walk On A Sprained Knee? | A Physical Therapist Explains

Woman with black leggings and gray jacket with hood holding her sprained knee

One of the most common questions I get from patients with knee sprains is “can you walk on a sprained knee?” – and I always tell them, well… it depends.

For example, if you feel your knee is giving out and you can’t bear weight on that leg, that’s a huge no. Go to the doctor straight away.

But, if you have mild pain and it only feels a little uncomfortable, then it’s likely ok. That said, pay attention to the recommendations below so you don’t make it worse.

Here, I’ll walk you through (pun intended):

  • When it’s probably safe to walk with knee sprains.
  • When it’s best to be careful.
  • When to don’t do it at all and go straight to a doctor.

Can you still walk on a sprained knee?

It’s probably safe to walk with a knee sprain if…

  • You can put weight on the injured leg.
  • You have mild swelling and/or bruising.
  • You can bend and straighten your joint with little to no knee pain.
  • You didn’t hear or feel a “pop” at the moment of injury.
  • You don’t feel like your knee is “giving out”.

These symptoms – or lack thereof – can be a sign that you have a grade I sprain.(1)

You overstretched your ligaments in this type of sprain. But, they should still be capable of keeping your knee joint stable.

Avoid doing sports and focus on light activities to prevent it from getting worse. An example here would be walking.

This should help ease the healing process and you’ll likely feel better after 2-4 weeks.(2)

Go to a doctor if the symptoms get worse, and/or if you start feeling knee instability.

Be careful walking with a knee sprain if…

  • It’s moderately painful to put weight on the injured leg.
  • You have tenderness in the area of the affected ligament.
  • You have moderate to severe swelling and/or bruising.
  • Is painful to bend or straighten your knee.
  • There was a “pop” at the moment of injury.

These symptoms are usually present in a grade II sprain.

This means that the ligament is partially torn, making it hard to keep the knee joint stable.

In a grade II sprain, it’s best to reduce the load on the joint so the knee ligament heals. Your doctor or physical therapist may suggest using crutches or wearing a knee brace for 3-6 weeks.(1)

The treatment will also include doing physical therapy. The goal here is to help you recover your stability and strengthen your muscles.

Avoid walking with a knee sprain if…

  • The injury happened while you were playing sports with high contact or sudden changes of direction- like rugby, football, soccer, tennis…
  • You can’t put weight on the injured leg.
  • There’s a lot of swelling.
  • It’s very painful to bend or straighten your knee.
  • There was a popping sound at the moment of injury.

These are symptoms of a knee with a grade III sprain, where the knee ligament is completely torn. If this is the case, go to a healthcare professional to check your treatment options.

Depending on which ligament you tore, the treatment may include surgery. You’ll have to do physical therapy exercises as well. The goal here is similar: to recover your knee function and strength.

How to manage a knee sprain at home

If you have a grade I or II sprain, you can probably manage it at home. But, it would be wise to check with a physical therapist to have some individual recommendations.

For the first 2 weeks, rest and protect your knee to prevent the sprain from worsening. You can do this by avoiding physically demanding activities or wearing a knee brace.

You can use an elastic bandage to help reduce the swelling as well. And if your pain level allows it, try to do some light physical therapy exercises at home.

You can use ice to reduce the pain or take some pain relievers. But use them sparingly, as some studies suggest they can hinder the healing process.

When to see a doctor for a knee sprain?

If you have any of the following, please check in with your doctor:

  • There was a pop at the moment of injury.
  • You can’t stand up or bear weight on the lower leg.
  • You feel like your knee will collapse.
  • The knee is swollen and painful.
  • You can’t bend or straighten the affected leg.

What’s a knee sprain?

A knee sprain is an injury where the ligament stretches more than it’s capable of. Although, sometimes ligaments also stretch to the point of tearing.

But, what’s a ligament?

A ligament is a tough band of tissue connecting two bones. Knee ligaments connect your femur and your tibia. They play a crucial role in keeping the knee joint stable so you can run, walk, and play sports.

To diagnose a knee sprain…

Your doctor may do some physical tests to check the movement of your knee and an MRI to see your ligaments.
The treatment and prognosis of any knee sprain will depend on the following:

  • Which of the four knee ligaments you injured, and
  • How severe the sprain is

Let’s take a look at each ligament and its prognosis after a sprain:

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)

The ACL is on the inside of the knee, along with the PCL. Both form an X shape that helps stabilize the knee.

A knee sprain of the ACL usually happens after jumping or twisting your knee suddenly.

At the moment of injury, most people feel a sudden “pop” and like the knee gives out. The swelling and bruising tend to appear in the first 24 hours.

Other symptoms include difficulty walking, pain, and swelling.

Severe ACL sprains may take up to 18 months to fully recover.(3)

Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)

The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) is also inside of the knee. It’s approximately twice as thick and as strong as the ACL, making the PCL less prone to injury.(4)

A PCL sprain happens when an extreme force pushes the shin bone on a flexed knee. A common example would be when a car accident pushes the knee into the dashboard.

You may feel pain on the back of your knee that worsens when you kneel.

It’s generally treated without surgery. But, it may be an option if there’s too much pain or other problems associated with the injury – like a meniscal tear.

By and large, it takes up to 9 months to recover after surgery.(4)

Medial collateral ligament (MCL)

The MCL is on the inner side of the knee, going from the femur to the shin bone.

A sprain of the MCL usually happens after the knee bends inward suddenly. The inner side of the knee will likely be tender after the injury.

The treatment is generally conservative, taking at least 6 weeks.(5)

Related: Reviewing the top knee braces for MCL injuries

Lateral collateral ligament (LCL)

The LCL is on the outside of the knee, from the femur to the shin bone.

A sprain of this ligament happens usually with a direct blow on the inner side of the knee with the leg extended.

The treatment will depend on the severity of the sprain. But, it usually includes some type of exercise and protection of the tissues.

It can take at least 4 months to recover after surgery.(1)

FAQs

How do I know if I sprained my knee?

You’ll probably feel a sharp pain at the moment of injury, sometimes with a “pop”. Depending on how severe the sprain is, you may also feel:

  • Joint stiffness.
  • Pain and swelling.
  • That the knee is “giving out”.
  • Leg weakness.

What is the fastest way to heal a sprained knee?

The fastest way to heal knee sprains is by doing physical therapy and following the medical advice of your healthcare providers.

That will let the sprain heal properly and cut the risk of worsening it.

How long do you have to stay off a sprained knee?

In grade I and II sprains, anywhere from 2 to 6 weeks. It could be longer depending on your level of pain, swelling, and knee instability.

It can take months in a grade III sprain.

Do knee sprains heal on their own?

This depends on the severity of the sprain and your symptoms. Grade I and II sprains are likely to heal on their own, but a grade III may need surgery.

You may need some physiotherapy as well. This always helps regardless of the severity, pain, and range of motion of your injured knee.

Conclusion: Can you walk with a knee sprain?

Probably yes, if it’s a grade I or II sprain. Avoid putting pressure on it if it’s a grade III sprain.

You may need surgery if the ligament is completely torn. It’s best to check with your preferred healthcare professional to plan how to treat the injury.

Avoid doing physically demanding activities for the first 2-4 weeks after injury to let the knee ligament heal.

Wait until you recover the full range of motion and you can walk without limping to return to your activities!

References

  1. Yaras, Reed et al. “Lateral Collateral Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 May 4]. Statpearls. Retrieved on June 05, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560847/
  2. “Sprains and strains.”[Last reviewed: 12 January 2018]. NHS. Retrieved on June 05, 2021 from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/sprains-and-strains/
  3. Evans, Jennifer et al. “Anterior Cruciate Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Feb 19]. Statpearls. Retrieved on June 05, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499848/
  4. Raj, Marc et al. “Posterior Cruciate Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Jan 22]. Statpearls. Retrieved on June 05, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430726/
  5. Naqvi, Usker et al. “Medial Collateral Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Mar 17]. Statpearls. Retrieved on June 05, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431095/
  6. Woo, Savio L-Y et al. “Biomechanics of knee ligaments: injury, healing, and repair.” Journal of biomechanics vol. 39,1 (2006): 1-20. doi:10.1016/j.jbiomech.2004.10.025