MCL Injuries and Sports Injuries in Chinese Medicine
The medial collateral ligament (MCL) runs along the outside edge of the knee joint, connecting the top of the tibia to the bottom of the femur. This ligament is responsible for providing lateral stability to the joint, so the knee can bend up and down, but not to the side.
Like other ligaments, the MCL is a common source for sports injuries. It is more common in sports where explosive lateral movement is required, or where heavy contact is expected. Basketball, soccer, and football are examples.
Depending on their severity, MCL injuries may sideline an athlete for months. Full recovery may be elusive, too, as subsequent MCL injuries are more likely to occur once an initial injury is sustained. Proper treatment is essential in preventing ongoing sports injuries, and here, we’ll address what those treatments look like from a western and Chinese medicine standpoint.
The Anatomy and Severity of MCL Injuries
Many MCL injuries are caused by sudden lateral movement that puts heavy strain on the ligament. Another common cause of MCL injuries is contact with the knee that pushes the joint laterally. This may occur during a football tackle, or when a soccer player falls into another player’s knee.
When an MCL injury occurs, its severity can be graded using the following clinical features:
- Grade 1 (sprain) – A grade 1 MCL injury is usually referred to as a sprain, although up to 10 percent of the ligament’s fibers may be torn with a grade 1 injury. Grade 1 injuries are characterized by mild to moderate pain in the knee and minor difficulty walking. The joint should remain stable, with less than 5mm of joint opening during a pressure test.
- Grade 2 (partial tear) – A grade 2 MCL injury is a partial tear that may reduce the joint’s stability to the point where it’s difficult to walk. Grade 2 injuries often produce intense pain and tenderness. During a pressure test, the joint may open up to 9mm.
- Grade 3 (complete tear) – A grade 3 MCL injury represents a complete tear of the ligament. The knee will be unstable and feel “loose,” making it almost impossible to walk on. Pain will be intense, and a pressure test will register more than 9mm of joint opening.
Treatment is based on severity, but western and Chinese medicine each have their own approach to resolving MCL and sports injuries.
Treating MCL and Sports Injuries: Western and Chinese Perspectives
Western and Chinese medicine have each demonstrated efficacy in treating a variety of sports injuries, including MCL injuries. Here is each medical philosophy’s approach:
- Western medicine – Western medicine recommends a combination of rest and pain medication for grade 1 and grade 2 injuries. Grade 2 injuries may require stabilization using a knee brace. Recent research shows better recovery outcomes if strength training is incorporated into treatment, as well, though only to the point that the patient can tolerate it. For grade 1 sprains, patients can usually return to their full physical regimen within 6 weeks. Grade 2 tears take around 10 weeks to heal.
Grade 3 tears are also treated with pain medication as needed, and crutches may be required until the joint can bear weight. In some cases, surgery may be recommended. For example, if the tear also features an avulsion fracture (a fracture caused by the ligament pulling away part of the bone), surgery will be required.
There isn’t an effective western approach to preventing future MCL injuries (and sports injuries, in general) once an initial injury has occurred. Strength exercises, proper diet and vigilance are the standard recommendations.
- Chinese medicine – In Chinese medicine, all of the body’s organs are interconnected to a degree. Classically, the MCL ligament has been associated with the kidneys and liver in Chinese medicine, given its proximity to kidney and liver channels. From a practitioner’s perspective, MCL injuries can be partially explained as persistent weakness in the liver and kidneys. In this context, weakness refers to a deficiency in the kidney or liver The focus of treatment is to fortify these organs so that they may support faster, more complete MCL healing.
To do this, practitioners usually rely on a combination of acupuncture treatments and herbal therapies. Since its foundation during ancient times, Chinese medicine practitioners have mapped out the body’s acupuncture points and their connections to various organ channels, including the kidneys and liver. Practitioners can access these channels through acupuncture points, some located near the MCL, and some located distally. When stimulated, these points can improve energy and blood flow through the kidneys and liver, improving their function and supporting better ligament healing, as a result.
The other primary prong of Chinese medicine is herbal formulations. Practitioners use these formulations to target particular organs and organ channels for nourishment – like the liver and kidneys. There are several used specifically for sports injuries, as they enter the kidney and liver channels and tonify the yin and blood. Xu Duang (dipsacus) is one example and is used to tonify the liver and kidneys. It’s also useful for “moving” the blood or improving circulation. There are other herbs that can be used with Xu Duang to boost these effects, but they should only be used if prescribed by a practitioner.
Merging Western and Eastern Medicine Provides Optimal Treatment Results for MCL Injuries
MCL injuries, and sports injuries in general, can be difficult to rehabilitate and recover from. Severe sports injuries, including MCL tears, may permanently rob an athlete of their performance, especially if those injuries aren’t properly addressed.
Western and eastern physicians both have effective ideas on how to treat these injuries, and the best approach often blends the two. If you regularly engage in athletic activity, either as a professional or for pleasure only, a Houston physician trained in both medical disciplines can provide comprehensive treatment for any sports injuries you sustain.