Knee Sprains - Symptoms and Treatment

Written by: Kevin Cash



Time to read 7 min

Have you ever gotten a knee sprain? If so, you'll understand the importance of a swift recovery.

Being aware of the injured knee is crucial for getting early treatment and ensuring a successful recovery.

A knee sprain is when your knee ligaments, or the bands of tissue supporting your knee joint, tear. Knee sprains may occur from a variety of different physical issues and include symptoms such as pain, swelling, and instability of the knee joint.

Treatment and recovery often take time, but the exact duration hinges on whether you have a minor or a severe sprain.

In this article, we will explore knee sprains, covering their causes, knee sprain symptoms, diagnosis, treatment, and prevention.

We want to help you speed up your knee sprain recovery time and prevent these injuries from wreaking havoc in your life.

What Is a Knee Sprain?

Man with a knee sprain

A knee sprain happens when the ligaments surrounding the knee joint stretch excessively or tear.

The knee joint consists of three bones held together by these ligaments. Ligaments are bands of tissue that provide stability by holding the bones of the knee joint in place.

Depending on the severity of the sprain, you will experience a variety of symptoms. Let's first explore knee sprain causes, so you understand how they will influence how a knee sprain can feel.

What Can Cause a Knee Sprain?

Man having extreme knee pain

Knee sprains can result from a variety of different causes. Mostly, these sprains occur from any physical activity that causes damage to the soft tissue surrounding the knee.

That's why these ligament tears are a common injury among athletes and explain why professional sports teams often have a physical therapist on their team.

Common causes of knee sprains include activities that subject the knee to trauma, such as:

  • sporting injuries
  • car accidents
  • falls that twist the knee
  • excessive running
  • weak muscles that don't support the knee sufficiently
  • tight muscles that decrease knee flexibility
  • poor form when running or walking

Symptoms of Knee Sprains

Woman having knee pain while jogging

It’s vital to understand the symptoms of a knee sprain to recognize and treat the injury.

There are many symptoms associated with a knee sprain, but the main symptoms likely to occur are pain and tenderness in the knee area.

Other general symptoms include:

  • feeling of instability in the knee with difficulty putting weight on the leg
  • sensation of snapping or popping in the knee due to ligament tearing
  • swelling and bruising around the knee
  • impaired ability to bend the knee
  • difficulty walking and putting weight on the affected leg

The grade and severity of your knee sprain will have different feelings and sensations:

Mild Knee Sprain (Grade 1)

  • Pain - Mild to moderate, often more discomfort than acute pain.
  • Swelling - Minimal or no visible swelling.
  • Stability - The knee generally feels stable; no sensation of the knee giving way.
  • Mobility - Slight restriction in movement due to discomfort, but the overall range of motion is largely maintained.
  • Other Sensations - Some tenderness around the affected area, but no significant bruising or warmth.

Moderate Knee Sprain (Grade 2)

  • Pain - Moderate to severe, often sharp or acute during certain movements.
  • Swelling - Noticeable swelling around the knee joint.
  • Stability - Some feelings of instability or weakness when putting weight on the knee.
  • Mobility - Restricted movement; bending and straightening the knee can be painful and limited.
  • Other Sensations - Tenderness and warmth around the injury site, possible minor bruising.

Severe Knee Sprain (Grade 3)

  • Pain - Severe and often immediate at the time of injury; can be sharp and intense.
  • Swelling - Significant swelling that appears quickly after the injury.
  • Stability - Marked instability; the knee may feel like it’s giving way or unable to support body weight.
  • Mobility - Greatly reduced; the knee may feel locked or extremely difficult to move.
  • Other Sensations - Pronounced tenderness, warmth, and potentially visible bruising. A popping sound or sensation may have been felt at the time of injury.

Each level of sprain severity requires appropriate medical attention, with more severe sprains often necessitating more extensive treatment, including potential physical therapy or surgical intervention. It's important to be diagnosed by a healthcare professional.

How to Get a Knee Sprain Diagnosed

Doctor diagnoses senior man with a knee sprain

If you suspect you have a knee sprain, it’s always a good idea to obtain a diagnosis from a medical professional.

To diagnose your sprained knee, a doctor will have you go through a physical exam to evaluate whether there is instability surrounding the knee joint.

They may also ask if you heard a pop in your knee when the injury occurred. The doctor will look for bruising and swelling, as well as assess the cause of the injury.

Other testing may also be used to aid the diagnosis process.

X-rays are used to diagnose fractures or breaks in the bone, while CT scans and MRIs are used to show other damage in the surrounding tissues of the bone.

MRI's are also recommended to understand if there is any cartilage damage. Damaged cartilage will require recurring treatment to protect further deterioration.

Knee Sprain Treatment

Woman having knee treatment

Once you’ve acquired a diagnosis for your knee sprain, the next step is to proceed with the treatment process.

Treatment for a knee sprain can be categorized into the following:

  • Immediate care post-injury
  • Medical team interventions
  • Follow-up rehabilitative measures

Let’s take a look at each of these more closely:

Immediate Care Post-injury

When you first sustain a knee injury, there are several things you should do to decrease the pain and swelling.

Immediate post-injury care can be summarized by the R.I.C.E method, which includes four steps of at-home treatment:

  1. Rest - This includes resting the affected knee to prevent any further injury from occurring.
  2. Ice - Apply ice to the affected area for 15-minute intervals to reduce knee swelling. Remember to take breaks between these periods to prevent skin damage.
  3. Compression - Compress the knee joint with an elastic bandage to reduce inflammation. Ensure the bandage isn't too tight to avoid cutting off circulation and causing discomfort.
  4. Elevate - This means raising the affected knee to a higher level, which will prevent blood pooling and reduce swelling in the knee.

When combined with anti-inflammatory medication, this should address pain and swelling symptoms while you await further medical evaluation.

Medical Team Interventions

If you have a suspected knee sprain, it is also important to seek professional medical treatment.

Several components are involved in the medical treatment you may receive.

The first line of treatment may be a form of knee brace that supports your knee for a certain period to aid recovery.

This will likely be given alongside a recommendation to reduce your activity levels while your knee heals.

In addition, painkillers such as acetaminophen may also be taken to address pain from the injury. If stronger painkillers are required, your doctor may also prescribe these for you.

In some cases, surgery may be required to repair the torn ligament. This usually only occurs in the case of more severe injuries where there is a complete tearing of the ligament.

A procedure known as arthrocentesis may also be required if the knee sprain has a large amount of swelling, redness, and warmth.

This procedure involves removing fluid from the joint through a needle after numbing the knee area.

Follow-up Rehabilitative Measures

Once you have been diagnosed and treated by your doctor, there is often continued treatment that is required to ensure full recovery and functioning of your knee.

To aid recovery of the knee, physical therapy is often included in the treatment plan.

Physical therapy involves exercises that increase strength in the knee as well as flexibility.

To increase strength, weight training is used for the knee. This may involve using brace weights, resistance bands, and other equipment.

Stretching exercises will be used to increase flexibility of the knee, and to monitor the progress of recovery of the injury.

How Long Does It Take To Recover After a Knee Sprain?

Woman doing knee exercises

The time it takes to recover from a knee sprain depends primarily on the severity of the injury.

More severe injuries are referred to as a grade 3 sprain. In this case, surgery is usually performed, and depending on the type of surgery, crutches may be required for up to 8 weeks.

Arthroscopic surgery recovery may not require crutches or for a limited time depending on your personal situation. Rehabilitation with physical therapy will be required. It’s best to speak with your healthcare professionals for a personalized recovery plan.

For a less severe grade 2 sprain where the ligament is partially torn, recovery time will usually take approximately a month.

Lastly, for the least severe sprain, or a grade 1 sprain, the ligament stretches but does not tear. This will likely heal in 1-2 weeks with at-home treatment.

What to Do to Avoid Getting a Knee Sprain?

Woman warming up knees and legs before jogging

At this stage, it’s a good idea to consider factors that may increase your risk of getting a knee sprain.

These are several things you can do to reduce your chance of injury:

  1. Wear Protective Equipment - Always wear proper footwear and equipment when exercising or participating in sports.
  2. Do Warm-Ups and Stretches - Ensure proper warm-up and stretching to reduce the risk of injury.
  3. Do Not Over-Exercise - Avoid over-exercising to prevent potential harm.
  4. Know About the Risk of Recurrence - If you've experienced a previous knee sprain, be aware that this increases the risk of a recurrence.
  5. Strengthen Surrounding Muscles - Reduce overall risk by strengthening surrounding muscles, including calves, hamstrings, leg muscles, and core, through targeted exercises.

When to Seek Urgent Care

Doctor consulting a man with knee pain

If you have had a knee injury, an important question to ask is how to know whether you need to seek urgent care.

There are several clear indications that you need to seek urgent medical treatment.

These include a popping sound in your knee after injury, the inability to walk and put weight on your knee, severe pain, and bruising or deformity of the knee.

In the event of any major injury to your knee, it is always good practice to get checked by a medical professional.

What to Remember About Knee Sprains

A knee sprain happens when the knee ligaments stretch or tear, commonly due to trauma like sporting injuries. However, it may also result from twisting the knees or overuse.

A knee sprain can cause pain, swelling, an inability to bear weight, and often a popping noise.

Immediate treatment should involve the R.I.C.E. method, but medical interventions may also encompass surgery, the use of a brace or crutches, and engagement in physical therapy.

Despite knee sprains, stay proactive with protective gear, muscle warm-up, and moderation in exercise for a stronger, pain-free future!