Ligaments attach bone to bone and provide support to joints. Ligament tissue is relatively inelastic, unlike muscle tissue that lengthens easily. If a joint is moved or forced beyond its limits, injury to a ligament is likely to occur.
The greatest problem with trauma to a ligament is that ligament tissue has very limited blood supply so it takes a long time to heal. And once a ligament as been stretched, scar tissue begins to form which limits the ligament's ability to return to its original tension. This makes it hard to restore stability to the joint.
The best thing to do is to strengthen the tendons and muscles surrounding the joint to provide added stability where it has been lost. As with muscle strains, ligament strains are also classified into a system that determines the severity of the injury.
Ligament Sprain Grading Scale
Grade 1 sprain: Some stretching and separation of the ligaments fibers has occurred. There may be a slight amount of instability to the joint. There may be mild pain and swelling. Joint stiffness should be expected. Rest, ice, compression, and elevation are the best ways to treat a grade 1 sprain.
Grade 2 sprain: Some tearing and separation occurs within the ligament and moderate instability of the joint is noticeable. Pain is moderate to severe with a grade 2 sprain. Swelling and joint stiffness is evident. Again, rest, ice, elevate, and compress the injury. It may be a good choice to have a doctor examine the injury to be sure no other damage has occurred.
Grade 3 Sprain: This is a total tearing of the ligament and major instability of the joint is apparent. Initially, pain is severe and will subside due to nerves being disrupted. A great deal of swelling will be present, and the joint tends to become very stiff. A grade 3 sprain will often require surgical repair.
Usually with an injury as severe as this, other injuries will occur, such as a bone fracture or muscle damage. Get to your doctor immediately for a thorough examination of the injury.
Do not apply ice directly to the skin or you put yourself at risk for frostbite. Use a towel between the ice and the injury, or use an ice bag. Apply ice for 20 minutes at a time, with at least 20 minutes between applications.
Applying ice immediately after any sprain will greatly increase your chances for recovery.