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Posterior Cruciate Ligament Injury

What is a posterior cruciate ligament injury?

An injury that causes a stretch or tear in a ligament is called a sprain. A ligament is a strong band of tissue that connects one bone to another. The posterior cruciate ligament is one of the major ligaments in the knee. It connects the thigh bone (femur) to the shin bone (tibia). This ligament, along with the anterior cruciate ligament, helps keep the knee stable and protects the femur from sliding or turning on the tibia.

Sprains are graded 1, 2, or 3, depending upon their severity:

  • grade 1 sprain: pain with minimal damage to the ligament
  • grade 2 sprain: more ligament damage and mild looseness of the joint
  • grade 3 sprain: complete tearing of the ligament and the joint is very loose or unstable

How does it occur?

The posterior cruciate ligament can be injured by a direct blow to the front of the knee while the knee is bent and the foot is planted, or from a fall to the ground. It can also occur in a car accident when your knee hits the dashboard. Posterior cruciate ligament tears are not common.

What are the symptoms?

You may recall a direct blow and possibly a painful pop. You may have swelling with fluid (called an effusion) in the knee joint. Your knee may feel loose.

If you have torn your posterior cruciate ligament in an injury that occurred months or years ago and you haven't had reconstructive surgery, you may have the feeling that the knee is giving way during sporting activities.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will examine your knee and may find that it is too loose. An X-ray may be taken to see if there are any injuries to the femur or tibia. An MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scan may help diagnose posterior cruciate ligament tears.

How is it treated?

To treat this condition:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Raise the knee on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory medicine such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.
  • Wrap an elastic bandage around your leg to keep the swelling from getting worse.
  • Use crutches as directed by your provider.
  • Follow your provider’s instructions for doing exercises to help you recover.

You and your healthcare provider will decide if you need to have surgery. The torn posterior cruciate ligament cannot be sewn back together. The ligament must be reconstructed by taking ligaments or tendons from other parts of your leg and connecting them to the tibia and femur.

How long will the effects last?

When you tear your posterior cruciate ligament you will have pain and swelling for several weeks. If you have a completely torn ligament the effects will be chronic. Your knee may feel loose and feel like it will give way when you are running and cutting. Rehabilitation exercises and a special brace will help improve the symptoms. You need to stop doing the activities that cause pain until your knee has healed. If you continue doing activities that cause pain, your symptoms will return and it will take longer to recover.

When can I return to my normal activities?

Everyone recovers from an injury at a different rate. Return to your activities depends on how soon your knee recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury has occurred. In general, the longer you have symptoms before you start treatment, the longer it will take to get better. The goal of rehabilitation is to return you to your normal activities as soon as is safely possible.

You may safely return to your normal activities when, starting from the top of the list and progressing to the end, each of the following is true:

  • Your injured knee can be fully straightened and bent without pain.
  • Your knee and leg have regained normal strength compared to the uninjured knee and leg.
  • Your knee is not swollen
  • You are able to walk, bend and squat without pain.

Return to your prior level of activity gradually. If pain occurs, contact your healthcare provider and decrease your activity to a pain-free level.

How can I prevent a posterior cruciate ligament sprain?

Unfortunately, most injuries to the posterior cruciate ligament occur during accidents that are not preventable. However, you may be able to avoid these injuries by having strong thigh and hamstring muscles and maintaining a good leg-stretching routine. When you are skiing, be sure your ski bindings are set correctly by a trained professional so that your skis will release when you fall.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD, for RelayHealth.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-08
Last reviewed: 2010-10-11
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2011 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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