Winter Sports and MCL Injuries

Does the idea of going outside during frigid winter temperatures send shivers down your spine?  For some, including athletes who take part in winter sports, this is the type of weather they train for all year. 

As with many sports, injuries are common, and winter sports are no different, with many being high-impact, and hard on your knees.

Emily Dixon DO, a primary care sports medicine doctor with the TriHealth Orthopedic and Spine Institute, talks about medial collateral ligament (MCL) injuries that can affect athletes of all levels – from amateurs to Olympians.

MCL Injuries: Am I at Risk?

Injuries of the MCL include: a stretch, a partial tear or a complete ligament tear. “If you suffer an MCL injury, it could possibly be accompanied by an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injury,” Dr. Dixon explains. “Many sports can lead to an MCL injury, specifically those where twisting of the knee occurs.”

Specific to winter sports, ice hockey players commonly experience MCL tears because of how they push and twist their knee. They're also at risk of catching their skate on other players, which can lead to injury. Additional winter sports where MCL injuries are common include:

  • Figure skating
  • Speed skating
  • Snowboarding
  • Skiing

MCL Injuries: When Are They an Emergency?

If you feel you have suffered an MCL sprain, symptoms include:

  • Pain on the inner side of the knee
  • Knee is swollen and tender
  • Feeling of your knee giving way
  • Hearing a pop or snap at the time of injury

In some instances, individuals experience damage to their MCL, ACL and meniscus, commonly known as the “terrible triad.” “If you can’t immediately bear weight on your injured leg, it's more of an emergency,” Dr. Dixon explains. “If you're able to bear weight, but the injury worsens after four to five days, or is no better, we would prefer to take a look at it.”

MCL Injuries: Treatment

When treating your MCL injury, Dr. Dixon says a conservative approach of physical therapy, medications and RICE therapy is taken. RICE therapy includes:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation 

"If the injury is an isolated tear without a complete avulsion [detachment], we’ll take a non-surgical approach,” Dr. Dixon says. “If the injury is an MCL with an ACL tear, the ACL will always need to be surgically repaired; only rarely is the MCL repaired — even with an ACL." 

An MCL will usually heal on its own. If there is a complete rupture of the MCL with Valgus instability, repair would be needed.

MCL Injuries: Prevention and Rehab

To reduce the risk of an MCL injury, focus on knee stability, quadriceps strengthening and hamstring training. “Weak quadriceps make a huge difference in knee stability,” Dr. Dixon notes. 

Proper rehab and strengthening will lead to better recovery outcomes. “Many people feel back to normal sooner than told by their doctor, so they might return to doing physical activity, which can lead to further damage,” Dr. Dixon says. Regardless of how well you feel during your recovery, it's important to follow recovery guidelines provided by your doctor to avoid re-injury.

Tags Orthopedics