The 2 most common ligament injuries in skiing are the medial collateral ligament (MCL) and the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). These injuries are not quite so common in snowboarding. Ligament injuries generally occur as a result of a high speed injury and do not occur with a simple pivot or twist. That is how a meniscus tear occurs.
The MCL is sprained or torn most commonly. It is a strap-like ligament on the inner side of the knee. The hallmark of an MCL tear is medial or pain on the inside of the knee, and generally the pain is worse the next day for milder sprains although for complete tears, sometimes there is very little pain because the ligament is no longer attached to the bone. Most medial collateral ligament tears are treated conservatively without surgery and take 6-12 weeks to completely heal.
The ACL is a main pivot to stabilize the knee and is in the center of the knee. It is needed for pivoting, twisting, and for most sports. 70% of the time a pop is heard at the time of injury. The history is very helpful in making the diagnosis.
At the time of the ski injury, in general, most patients with a ligament tear will feel some instability. If both ligaments are torn, when one gets up and tries to bear weight, the knee will buckle. If you are unable to ski down the slope, it is more likely than not that a ligament injury may have occurred. A rare patient with an isolated ACL tear will be able to ski down the mountain if they are very careful.
Immediate swelling of the knee generally means something has bled inside the joint and suggests a more serious injury and is not seen with an isolated MCL tear. This generally is seen with an ACL tear, fracture or kneecap dislocation. A pop is heard 70 % of the time in those having an ACL tear.
Initial treatment is RICE, rest, ice, compression and elevation and often some sort of immobilizer is placed. Crutches are generally needed. Weightbearing and walking on the leg should be minimal until you are cleared by an orthopedic surgeon. Range of motion and movement, as well as continuing to flex her quadriceps muscles, generally are safe.
If a visit to the emergency room is made, generally x-rays are done to rule out a fracture, and treatment will consist of a splint and crutches. Ask for a copy of your x-rays, since they can often be placed on a CD now, so they don’t have to be repeated. It is best to see an orthopedic surgeon if you heard a pop or are unable to bear weight within a few days. In the meantime, use Rice treatment. If you have an HMO and have to go through your primary care physician first, let them know that you want a referral to an orthopedic surgeon. In general, waiting a few days for the swelling to go down will not be harmful to your knee, unless the ligament injury is on the outside (lateral side) of the knee rather than the inside. The injuries to the lateral collateral ligament (LCL), can be much more complicated and may need more urgent attention if they are combined with either an ACL tear or PCL tear. So, significant swelling bruising or tenderness on the lateral or outside of your knee should be seen by an orthopedic surgeon fairly soon. And seeing an orthopedic surgeon with a subspecialty in knees would be ideal. These can be very tricky and complicated injuries.
Some patient’s call our office asking for an MRI before they are even seen. While in our high-speed Internet age, this may seem the most efficient thing to do, not all MRIs are of the same quality, and are very expensive. Insurance companies will not authorize them without an exam. Your orthopedic surgeon will know the best place to have it done. It has been shown in numerous studies, that an adequate physical examination and history by a trained knee surgeon is nearly as accurate as an MRI. I personally use the MRI to help me with preoperative planning and timing.
So, if you were skiing, fell, heard a pop, your knee swelled and you felt unstable when you got up, chances are you tore your ACL. It is a real bummer when the powder is fresh and it is your first day…
The next blog will cover the treatment options for ACL injuries. This is where the patient as a consumer can become overwhelmed with the multiple treatment approaches, graft choices and postoperative care. Hopefully, it will give you some direction. The main point is in treatment of ACL injuries, there is no urgency in the vast majority of cases, and if someone is urging you on to have surgery “today” and all you have is an ACL tear, get a second opinion.
-Lesley Anderson, MD