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Knee Injuries — The Difference Between a Strain, Sprain, and Tear


What is the difference between a strain, sprain, or tear when it comes to knee soft tissue injuries? Let’s take a comprehensive look at the knee and the difference between these types of injuries. Read on to gain a better understanding of what has been injured and the severity of the condition.

Elite Medical Blog (1)

Knee Injuries — Strain

Acute injuries that tear the tendons or muscle fibers that attach around the knee are referred to as strains. This condition occurs due to direct hits to the knee, overuse from repetitive activities, over stretching, or extreme bending. Most people experience knee strains after putting on weight or during weightlifting. Sports collisions can also lead to knee strains due to the sudden movement that stretches a knee tendon. These tears are graded on a scale of 1 to 3.

1 being mild
2 being moderate
3 being a complete tear (which may require surgical intervention)

A knee strain will have symptoms such as swelling, pain, and loss of mobility. Individuals may find it difficult to put weight on the affected leg or bend the knee. The damaged tissues will become stiff and inflamed, and the knee is usually tender. Sometimes this can also be referred to as tendonitis depending on the severity or chronicity.

Knee Injuries — Sprain

A knee sprain is an overstretched or torn ligament (the tissue holding the bones together). Therefore, a knee sprain means that the structures connecting the shin bone (tibia) to the thigh bone (femur) are injured. The condition is rather painful when left untreated.

Your knee has four primary ligaments — two that work to stabilize side-to-side shifts while the other two work to stabilize back-and-forth movement. These all work together to stabilize the knee. Knee sprains are categorized according to the specific ligament that is injured or torn. An injury to any of these ligaments can cause instability in the knee. Here is a quick look at the main knee ligaments:

  • The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) and anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) form an 'X' at the knee joint, thus providing stability from the back and front.
  • The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is located along the knee's interior, thus providing more support to the knee joint.
  • The lateral collateral ligament (LCL) is located along the knee's exterior, thus keeping it more stable on the side.

Knee Injuries — Tear

An injury to the meniscus (cartilage layers that help stabilize the knee) is known as a tear. It can either be partial (damage occurs on only some of the structure) or complete (an entire meniscus or ligament is torn in two).

Athletes participating in contact sports are most affected by knee tears due to tackling or sudden direction changes. However, the tear can also be a result of a car accident, falling, or a misstep. Tears can occur in either the medial or lateral meniscus and can have varying symptoms depending on the position and severity of the tear. Severe tears can require surgery to fix since the meniscus has minimal blood supply and does not heal as other areas of the body do. Some people will feel their knee “locking” in certain movements because the knee joint is unable to glide the way it typically would over a healthy meniscus. 

Diagnosing Knee Strains, Sprains, & Tears

Several parts of your knee can be injured — including the muscles, ligaments, fibrous cords, meniscus, and tendons. Symptoms of knee strains, sprains, and tears can include bruising, pain, swelling, and difficulty in movement. Your doctor will diagnose your knee injury to determine the type of injury and the severity based on orthopedic tests, Xray, MRI, or other diagnostic testing. These structures are also usually injured together due to the complex structure of the knee.

We Are Here to Help

A knee brace is an excellent tool that can help manage knee injuries. It works by stabilizing the knee joint and keeping pressure off damaged parts of the knee by limiting motion. 

At Elite Medical Supply, we are a contract supplier for back, knee, and extremity braces and we specialize in helping Medicare beneficiaries. Our staff closely coordinates with your healthcare provider to give you the right brace or pain management solution. Contact us today to get started, and we'll even do all the paperwork for you.