Ligament and Cartilage Injury: Common Causes and Conditions

Ligament and cartilage damage in the knee, ankle, foot or wrist can be painful and may result in further injury if not treated properly. It is important to understand and treat these injuries.

Torn Ligaments and Sprains

Ligaments (such as anterior cruciate, or ACL; lateral collateral or LCL) are strong bands of collagen that bind bones together at joints, such as your wrists, knees or ankles. Injury to a ligament is commonly called a “sprain.” Sprains happen when a powerful strain is unexpectedly put on the joint, forcing the ligament beyond its normal range of motion and causing the ligament to stretch or tear.

Sprains can have many causes, including falls and sudden twisting of joints or blows to joints that are common in sports like football, basketball and running. Skiers often suffer from sprained thumbs after taking a spill with their hand attached to a ski pole.

Sprains are characterized as mild, moderate and severe. The severity of the injury will depend on the extent of the injury (whether a tear is partial or complete) and the number of ligaments involved. A mildsprain results when a ligament is stretched or slightly torn, which generally causes the joint to feel tender or slightly painful when weight is placed on it, as well as swelling. Minor sprains can usually be treated at home by:

  1. easing the weight you place on the joint,
  2. icing the area for 10 to 15 minutes 3-4 times a day,
  3. compressing the joint with a bandage to reduce swelling, and
  4. keeping the sprained joint elevated to allow swelling in the joint to drain away.

While the joint may be tender, generally a mild sprain will heal on its own in 6-8 weeks. A moderatesprain results from a partial tear in a ligament and is usually accompanied by more pain, bruising, and difficulty moving than a mild sprain.

A severe sprain occurs when a ligament tears completely, causing the joint to become very painful and unable to move normally or sustain weight. A severe sprain can require surgery to correct. The National Institute of Health provides an explanation of the different types of ligament sprains.

Cartilage Injuries

Cartilage is a semi-elastic tissue that helps cushion bones and distribute weight evenly in joints. There are three types of cartilage: (a) articular (or hyaline) cartilage which covers joint surfaces, (b) fibrocartilage such as the meniscus in the knee or disks of cartilage between vertebrae in the spine, and (c) elastic cartilage such as the outer ear.

Injuries most often occur to the articular cartilage or to the meniscus in the knee. Damage to the articular cartilage (which eases friction in the joints) can be classified as either traumatic or progressive.

Traumatic injury can be caused by a blow or impact that tears the cartilage, sometimes causing loose bits of cartilage to “float” around the joint and interfere with its normal movement. Progressiveinjury is repetitive wear and tear to the tissue. Over time, the bones in the joints do not have the protection of the cartilage as they move, resulting in arthritis pain, limited joint motion and swelling. The causes of progressive cartilage injury can include repetitive high-impact stress on the joint, genetic factors like bone structure, and lack of sufficient muscle support for the joint.

When someone talks about an injury to cartilage in the knee, they are usually referring to a meniscus tear. A meniscus is a C-shaped wedge of cartilage in the knee (each knee has two menisci) that makes smooth knee movement possible and prevents the thigh bone and shin bone from rubbing against each other. Like other forms of cartilage damage, a meniscal tear can also be caused by a blow to the knee (football tackle, for example) or by repetitive wear, and results in swelling and pain. The National Institute of Health gives further information about the effects of cartilage damage.

If you have a lot of pain, bruising, and difficulty moving a joint after a fall or injury, it is important to visit a doctor who can determine the severity of the sprain and advice you as to the treatment options.