Knee sprains account for 40% of all knee injuries. The good news is that some types of knee sprains can heal at home. So, what to do for a sprained knee? How do you recover from this knee injury? (1)
First, the treatment will depend on the type of sprain (2):
- Mild sprain: The ligament got stretched, but didn’t tear.
- Moderate sprain: A part of the ligament tore. Or, one or more ligaments got injured.
- Severe sprain: The ligament is torn completely.
I’ve detailed 4 steps that will help you recover regardless of the severity of your sprain. But, moderate or severe tears may need extra help. We’ll talk about that, too.
But remember: The first three weeks after a knee sprain are key. During that time, follow these steps to heal your knee sprain:
How to treat a knee sprain at home in 4 steps
1) Do the PRICE protocol
This protocol can reduce pain and swelling in fresh injuries. PRICE is an acronym for:
- Protect. Avoid further injury on the affected knee. This will reduce the risk of reinjury as well.
- Rest. After a knee sprain, your ligaments won’t stabilize the joint as usual. Resting gives them time to heal.
- Ice. Cold temperatures can decrease pain in some people. Just put an ice pack on the injured area, 2-3 times per day, 10 minutes at a time.
- Compression. The pressure will reduce swelling. Do this by wrapping the knee joint with an elastic bandage. It shouldn’t be too tight, though, or else you compromise your bloodflow.
- Elevation. Elevate the injured knee above your heart. Do this several times per day. Gravity will reduce inflammation for you.
2) Wear a knee sleeve or a knee brace
But a knee brace provides more stability. This makes knee braces better for protecting your ligaments. And, in turn, also making them better for moderate and severe knee sprains. They can also help reduce knee pain.
Having said that, the brace has to be in the correct position to work. If you’re not sure, about how to wear a knee brace, visit your nearest healthcare provider.
3) Move to tolerance
Rest is important, yes, but so is movement because it helps promote healing.
So, move according to your tolerance and find the sweet spot between rest and movement. As a rule of thumb: rest if it’s too painful or uncomfortable.
If you can bear weight on your lower leg, start by walking.
Take a short walk to reduce the stiffness on your joint. Don’t overdo it, though. A sudden increase in physical activity can cause a setback. Go little by little and let your symptoms guide you.
If you can’t bear weight, try using crutches or a brace.
Also, go to a physical therapist. If you can’t stand on the injured leg, that’s a sign you need help to recover. The sprain might be moderate or severe.
4) Take over-the-counter medications
These medications can reduce inflammation and provide pain relief. But, take them only if you need them.
Further reading: What to take for knee pain?
What if home care for a knee sprain isn’t enough?
If your sprain isn’t improving after 2-3 weeks, you need medical attention. Your tear may be severe and you’ll need immediate care if the ligament is completely torn.
The doctor will ask for an MRI to assess the severity of the tear. Once the diagnosis is made, there are several treatment options available. The two most relevant are:
Going to physical therapy
First, a physical therapist manages the symptoms. They do so with treatments like using temperatures, massage, taping, electrotherapy, a light stretch, and more. This depends on the therapist and what they consider best for your case.
After managing the symptoms of your knee sprain, your physio will give you exercises. They can include stretching or strengthening movements. These are key to recovering from a knee sprain.
Need help finding a physical therapist? We can help!
You may need surgery
Athletes with a torn ligament may need surgery. This intervention can help them go back to sports as soon as possible. Some people with repetitive knee sprains may improve with this treatment as well.
But, keep in mind that this is a personal decision. If you’re considering surgery for a knee sprain, talk to your doctor and therapist about the potential outcomes and risks.
How do you know which knee ligament is sprained?
Ligaments are tough bands of tissue. They connect our bones and stabilize our joints. And, a sprain happens when a ligament stretches beyond its capacity. After a knee sprain, most people feel:
- Decreased movement.
- Pain and swelling in the affected area.
- Knee instability.
- Difficulty bearing weight on the affected leg.
We have many ligaments in our knee joints. But, it has four ligaments prone to sprains:
Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)
This ligament is within the joint. It can sprain after twisting the knee, or while changing directions and running. So, it’s a common injury in sports like football, basketball, or skiing.
Most ACL sprains are severe. They can take from 4 to 18 months to recover. (3)
Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)
The PCL is behind the ACL. It often gets sprained in car accidents. If the knee is bent and the dashboard pushes the shin bone, the extreme force can cause a PCL sprain.
Medial collateral ligament (MCL)
This ligament is on the inner side of the knee joint. It can sprain after bending the joint inward with a sudden motion. For example, during a tackle in football.
Most people feel a popping sound at the moment of injury followed by painful swelling. The recovery time is at least 6 weeks. (1)
Lateral collateral ligament (LCL)
This ligament is on the outer side of the knee. It sprains if the joint bends outward suddenly. Like after a direct blow on the inside of the knee with the leg straight.
Apart from the popping sound and the swelling, you may feel tingling on the outer side of the knee. It can take at least 4 months to recover. (2)
Can you walk on a sprained knee?
If it doesn’t make your symptoms worse, yes. Don’t walk on a sprain if you can’t bear weight on your injured leg, for example.
Do knee sprains heal on their own?
Some can heal on their own with proper treatment. This will depend on the severity of the injury and the ligament affected.
What does a knee sprain feel like?
Most people feel a popping sound at the moment of injury. Swelling appears during the first 24 hours. Moderate and severe sprains can cause the knee to give out.
Conclusion: What do you do for a sprained knee?
In summary, rest with your knee elevated and move according to your tolerance. Ice, medications, and sleeves can also help you manage pain and inflammation.
And remember: Ligaments support your joints. So, if you still feel the joint unstable after a few weeks, you may need medical help. Go to physical therapy or your trusted doctor.
- Naqvi, Usker et al. “Medial Collateral Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Mar17]. Statpearls. Retrieved on September, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK431095/
- Yaras, Reed et al. “Lateral Collateral Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 May 4]. Statpearls. Retrieved on September, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK560847/
- Evans, Jennifer et al. “Anterior Cruciate Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Feb 19]. Statpearls. Retrieved on September, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK499848/
- Raj, Marc et al. “Posterior Cruciate Ligament Knee Injuries.” [Updated 2021 Jan 22]. Statpearls. Retrieved on September, 2021 from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430726/