Sprains and strains are common injuries affecting the muscles and ligaments. Most can be treated without seeing a GP.
A ligament is fibrous connective tissue that connects bones to other bones enabling stability. Ligaments are viscoelastic in that they gradually strain when under tension and return to their original shape when the tension is removed. Ligament injuries are among the most common causes of musculoskeletal joint pain and disability, often caused through physical activity such as sports. Ligaments are most likely damaged or ‘sprained’ when extended past a certain point or for a prolonged period of time.
Unlike muscle tissue, fibrous connective tissue does not have a significant blood supply to bring necessary fluid and nutrients to the site of an injury. As these nutrients are essential for repairing the damage, ligaments cannot usually be regenerated. Although many ligaments do not regain their normal tensile strength, a ligament injury can repair can heal within a few weeks dependant on location and severity.
The consequence of a damaged ligament can be pain and instability of the joint. Ruptured ligaments (complete tears) may require surgical reattachment. For example, most common knee injury, torn or ruptured ACL ( Anterior Cruciate Ligament) requires surgery to repair it. However not all broken ligaments need surgery. Almost all ankle sprains can be treated without surgery. Even a complete ligament tear can heal without surgical repair if it is immobilised appropriately. But, if surgery is needed to stabilise the joint, the broken ligament can be repaired.
When suffering a ligament injury, immobilisation, icing the injury, resting from painful activity and some anti-inflammatory medications during the initial phases can be very beneficial. Ice is preferred for the initial two or three days post-injury. Apply ice for 20 minutes each two to three hours for the first few days until the “heat” comes out of the injury. Ice should also help to reduce your pain and swelling in traumatic soft tissue injuries, such as ligament sprains, muscle tears or bruising.
Exercise cannot build or strengthen ligaments. However proprioceptive functional rehabilitation and strengthening of muscles is very effective in recovery and reducing future ligament injury risk.