How to Tell ACL vs MCL Tears Apart

Sports Injuries

Mar 15, 2023


Do you know how to tell if you have torn your ACL vs MCL? The knees are such an integral part of the body. From routine activities, such as driving and walking, to more demanding movements such as playing sports, they allow us to live life fully. When one of them is injured, there are many limitations on what you can do.

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) tears are two of the most common knee injuries. While both types of injury involve damage to a ligament, they have different symptoms and require different treatments. It’s important to be able to tell ACL vs MCL tears apart in order to properly diagnose and treat the injury.

In aims of helping you better understand the anatomy of your knees, below is a basic analysis of the differences between an ACL and an MCL tear.

Overview of Knee Anatomy

Before diving into the differences between an ACL vs MCL tear, it’s important to understand the anatomy of the knee. The knee joint is composed of four bones: the femur (thigh bone), tibia (shin bone), patella (knee cap), and fibula (calf bone). Ligaments connect the bones of the knee and provide stability.

The ACL is a band of tissue in the center of the knee joint connecting the femur to the tibia. It helps provide rotational stability to the knee by preventing excessive rotation. The MCL is located on the inner side of the knee and runs from the femur to the shin bone, providing stability to the knee joint by preventing it from shifting laterally.

Tearing your MCL vs ACL: which is worse?

Is an MCL tear worse than an ACL tear? Technically speaking, an ACL tear could be considered to be worse since it may require surgery to fully heal. Both types of injuries are painful and since ligaments are meant to provide joint stability, either type of injury will impair a person’s mobility. The limitations vary depending on which ligament was injured. 

On the other hand, a minor MCL tear can heal on its own. Let’s break down the differences. 

ACL tear symptoms

An ACL tear usually occurs when a person changes direction rapidly, stops suddenly, or lands awkwardly from a jump. Furthermore, it can happen during contact sports such as soccer and basketball. 

The most prominent symptom of an ACL tear is a popping sound when the ligament is injured. Other symptoms of an ACL tear include:

  • Pain and swelling
  • Tenderness
  • Instability in the knee
  • Pain in the back of the knee
  • Decreased range of motion in the knee joint
  • Inability to extend the injured leg

If you experience any of these symptoms, it is important to see a doctor right away. Prompt medical attention can help prevent further damage and speed up the healing process.

MCL tear symptoms

An MCL tear is caused by direct impact on the outer portion of the knee while the foot is planted on the ground. This type of injury commonly results from sports injuries such as a tackle in football or from sliding into a base in baseball. 

Common symptoms associated with an MCL tear include localized pain along the outside of the knee joint and will be tender to touch. In addition to the inability to carry the body weight, shooting pain, and swelling, the person will also feel like they have a locked knee. 

How to tell ACL vs MCL tears apart

When ACL and MCL tears happen at the same time, it can be difficult to tell them apart. The most common way to tell the two apart is that tearing your ACL will produce a distinct popping sound. However, the best way to differentiate between the two is to conduct a physical examination with special tests designed specifically for each injury. For example, a Lachman test can help determine if there is an ACL tear, while a varus/valgus test can detect if the MCL is injured.

It’s important to note that even with a detailed physical examination and special tests, an accurate diagnosis can only be made by an experienced orthopedic doctor. An MRI is also recommended in order to identify any other associated damage or injuries and a computed X-ray can help rule out any broken bones.

What causes ligaments to tear so easily?

Ligaments can tear easily due to the way they are structured. Ligaments are made of strong, stretchy fibers that connect bones together and help form joints. But when too much pressure is put on the ligament, these fibers can become overstretched or torn, leading to an injury.

ACL tears tend to occur when a person does a sudden movement, such as changing directions quickly, landing from a jump incorrectly, or suddenly stopping. This is why knee injuries are one of the most common sports injuries, especially in high-contact sports such as football, hockey, rugby, and basketball as well as in sports with quick stops such as soccer, tennis, and pickleball*.

*Continue reading about common pickleball injuries 

Can you still walk with a torn ACL and MCL?

The answer to this question depends on the severity of the injury. If the tear is minor, a person may still be able to walk with some assistance. However, if the tear is more severe, then walking may not be possible until after surgery and physical therapy. It’s important to note that even with treatment, full recovery from an ACL and MCL tear can take up to a year or longer.

For those with ACL or MCL tears, the most important thing is to seek medical attention right away and follow your doctor’s instructions for treatment. The sooner you get help, the quicker you can start feeling better and getting back to your normal activities.

Torn MCL and ACL recovery time

As with any injury that results in the rupture or tearing of a muscle, tendon, or ligament, recovery time can vary greatly from person to person. In general, the healing process for a torn MCL or ACL should take around six months to a year before full strength and range of motion are restored in the knee.

ACL tear recovery time and treatment

Treatment for an ACL tear will vary on two main factors: (a) The severity of the injury, and (b) the patient’s lifestyle. For minor injuries or for a person who has either a sedentary lifestyle or low activity level, conservative treatment such as physical therapy may suffice. However, an athlete and/or someone with a fully torn ligament will require surgery.

MCL tear recovery time and treatment

Minor MCL injuries can heal on their own. Home remedies include icing the injury for 15 to 20 minutes at a time, resting, wearing a compression sleeve, and keeping the injured leg elevated. While surgery is highly unlikely, you should still go to the doctor for a thorough examination of the injured joint to avoid complications.

ACL Tear and MCL Tear Prevention

While some injuries are hard to prevent, you can lower the likelihood of an ACL tear by warming up and doing stretching exercises before playing sports. Also, stay hydrated and pay close attention to proper nutrition for your sports of preference. This will prevent muscle fatigue and a change in athletic form.

To lower the risk of suffering from an MCL tear, always wear protective gear when playing sports and do strength training exercises so that your leg muscles can take some of the stress placed on the knee joint.

Need clarification surrounding a knee injury? Complete Care can help!

If you’ve injured a knee, and need to know whether it’s an ACL vs MCL tear or a knee sprain, head to your nearest Complete Care location. We are a freestanding ER who are open 24/7 and ready to help, no matter the time of day or night. Our caring and knowledgeable staff will help you get on the road to recovery in no time. 

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