What is a ligament?
Ligaments are bands of tissue that help connect bones, joints and organs and hold them in place.
What do ligaments do?
Ligaments have several important jobs that help you move properly. They:
- Allow the joint to move in the direction(s) it was meant to move.
- Hold bones together.
- Make sure that joints don’t twist.
- Stabilize muscles and bones.
- Strengthen joints.
- Prevent bones from dislocating.
For example, your knee has four ligaments that keep it from moving side to side or backward. Ligaments also hold the uterus in place in a woman’s pelvis. Additionally, they connect the liver, intestine and stomach and hold them in place.
Where are my ligaments?
You have more than 900 ligaments throughout your body. Most are located in your arms and legs.
What are ligaments made of?
Ligaments are like cords made of connective tissue, elastic fibers that are somewhat stretchy, and collagen, a protein that binds tissues in animals.
What do ligaments look like?
Ligaments come in different shapes and sizes. Most look like ropes, cords or bands. Some are thin, like a piece of string, but others are wider. Some are even shaped in an arch. They can be pink, yellow or white.
Conditions and Disorders
Can I injure a ligament?
A ligament can be stretched or torn. This injury is called a sprain. It occurs when a ligament is forced to move in the wrong direction or stretches too far. Sprains often happen during a sudden fall, twist or impact.
Ligament injuries are common, especially in the:
For example, if you step on a sidewalk curb the wrong way, you may twist and sprain your ankle. If you fall but catch yourself on an outstretched hand, you can injure the ligaments in your wrist. People sometimes injure ligaments from impact during a car or bike accident.
What are the symptoms of a sprain or torn ligament?
If you injure a ligament, symptoms may include:
- Loose feeling in the joint.
- Popping or snapping sound.
- Trouble bearing weight on the affected limb.
- Weakness in the joint.
How are sprains classified?
A healthcare provider will grade your sprain by how severe it is and what symptoms you have:
- Grade 1: A grade 1 sprain is a ligament that is overstretched or slightly torn. With a grade 1 strain, you’ll have minimal pain, swelling and bruising. You won’t have much trouble putting weight on that part of the body or using it.
- Grade 2: A grade 2 sprain involves a partial ligament tear. Signs include bruising, swelling, some pain and some difficulty using the body part or putting weight on it.
- Grade 3: A grade 3 sprain is a complete ligament tear or rupture. It causes severe bruising, swelling and pain. With a grade 3 sprain, you cannot use or put weight on that part of the body.
How can a healthcare provider tell if I’ve injured a ligament?
If you think you have a sprain or torn ligament, a healthcare provider may:
- Ask you about your symptoms and when they started.
- Conduct a physical exam by looking at the injured area and assessing how it moves.
- Order imaging tests if necessary, such as MRI, to take pictures of the ligament.
- Take X-rays to rule out a broken bone or other problem.
What are the common treatments for a sprained ligament?
Treatments for ligament injuries vary greatly, depending on:
- How long you’ve had symptoms.
- How severe the injury is (grade 1, 2 or 3).
- Whether it’s interfering with your life.
Treatment may range from:
- RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression (with an elastic bandage) and Elevation.
- Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs).
- Immobilization (such as a splint, sling or brace) or assistive devices (for example, crutches to keep weight off the injury).
- Physical therapy.
How can I prevent a sprain or torn ligament?
Not all ligament injuries can be prevented, but you can take steps to keep your ligaments safer, especially during exercise:
- Maintain a healthy weight.
- Mix up your exercise routine, combining weight training and aerobic activities (cardio).
- Rest for a day after intense exercise.
- Stop exercising if you feel overtired or experience pain.
- Warm up before you exercise, increase intensity gradually, and then stretch afterward.
- Wear shoes that fit well.
How can I keep my ligaments healthy?
As you age, your ligaments can weaken and become more likely to be injured. You can help keep your ligaments healthy by walking and exercising more — and sitting less.
Eating certain nutrients can also help:
- Manganese (for example, nuts, legumes, seeds, whole grains and leafy green vegetables).
- Omega-3 (found in fish).
- Sulfur (try broccoli, cauliflower, kale, cabbage, brussels sprouts, garlic, onion, eggs, fish and poultry).
- Vitamin A (found in carrots, sweet potatoes, kale, spinach and broccoli).
- Vitamin C (for example, red peppers, kiwis, green peppers, oranges, lemons, strawberries, kale, pineapple, grapefruit).
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I see a healthcare provider for a ligament injury?
You should talk to a healthcare provider if you have:
- Inability to use a joint as you could before.
- Looseness or weakness in a joint.
- Trouble putting weight on the body part (for example, your ankle or knee).
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Ligaments are bands of tissue that help hold bones, joints and organs in place. You can take several steps to protect your ligaments. However, ligament sprains are very common, especially in the ankle, knee, wrist, back and neck. Proper diagnosis and treatment can help you avoid worsening problems and live a fuller life.
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