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What Is an MCL Sprain and How Long Does It Take to Heal?

Everything you need to know about the knee injury that sidelined Stephen Curry in the first round of the 2016 NBA Playoffs.

When Steph Curry slipped and fell in Game 4 of the Golden State Warriors' first-round playoff series against the Houston Rockets, the whole of Dub Nation seemed to hold its breath.

Shortly before the first half, the Warriors' irreplaceable all-star and returning MVP slipped on a wet patch of the hardwood. His left leg moved out from under him, and as he started to slide, his right knee buckled from underneath him. Curry hit the deck, grasping his right knee: a nightmare scenario for Warriors fans.

Fortunately, Curry managed to shrug it off and limp to the sidelines, and the rest of the Warriors scorched the Rockets to lock up a crucial Game 4 win. After an MRI on Curry's knee, though, the team confirmed that he'd suffered a Grade I sprain of his MCL, and that he'd be out for at least two weeks pending re-evaluation.

While Curry is undoubtedly an exceptional athlete, his injury—particularly for basketball players—is not. So we asked Michael Conlon, a physical therapist and founder of Finish Line Physical Therapy in New York City, for the lowdown on MCL sprains, and how Curry might fare as the Warriors look to repeat as NBA champions.


What does the MCL do, and why did Curry injure his when he slid?

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is one of the major bands of connective tissue, like the ACL and the LCL, that help stabilize the knee. The MCL runs along the side of the knee, connecting the femur to the tibia. In most cases, the MCL helps protect the knee against any lateral force—like a sudden cut in basketball.

“When Curry slid, he created a valgus force—a lateral force coming from the outside to the inside—that created stress on the inside of his knee,” Conlon says. “If you put your hand on the left side of your right knee and gently push inward on your knee, you can feel that stress. In his slip, that knee buckled inward.”

Major ligaments in the knee / via Wikimedia Commons

What exactly is a sprain?

When a ligament moves too far, its fibers stretch past their normal range. That’s a sprain. And as anyone who’s ever rolled an ankle knows, sprains usually mean swelling.

“That inflammation is the first sign of healing,” Conlon says. “Inflammation is a good thing, because it allows the tissue to start the healing process.”

Immediately after an injury, the PRICE protocol—protection, rest, ice, compression, and elevation—can help reduce the swelling and pain around the injury.

What are the "grades" of an MCL sprain?

Sprains are typically graded from I to III, Grade I being the most mild and Grade III being severe. Grade II sprains sometimes involve some tearing of the ligament; Grade III injuries usually involve either a partial or full tear, also called a rupture. “There’s no exact definition of each grade,” Conlon says, “but based on the MRI, they can tell how badly the ligament got stretched out or how much swelling there is. In the cases of a full rupture, for example, a doctor will sometimes call that a Grade IV, or not call it a sprain at all and simply label it a rupture."

In making a diagnosis, the training staff will test how unstable the joint is, how much pain it produces, and how much stress Curry can put on it. Fortunately for the Warriors and their fans, Curry’s sprain is only a Grade I, the team announced. “Steph’s obviously an elite athlete,” Conlon says. “He jogged off the court, which was a pretty good sign."

What’s the recovery time for an MCL sprain?

It’s hard to say exactly how long MCL sprains need to heal, but a few factors affect the recovery timeline. A mild Grade I sprain might take anywhere from two to six weeks to recover, while a Grade III sprain or complete rupture of the MCL could take months of dedicated rehab. And while a total rupture don’t necessarily require surgery—the choice generally depends on how unstable the knee is—any athlete who wants to get back in the game at full force typically opts for a surgical repair.

“I had a client who ruptured her MCL and who didn’t want to have surgery right away, but found that her knee was buckling too much on her runs for her to be comfortable without surgery,” Conlon says.

Recovery also depends on the athlete’s goals. “If Grandma sprains her MCL and her only goal is to be able to walk to the grocery store, she might be able to get back in a week or two,” Conlon says. “But if Grandma wants to rejoin her pickup basketball league, that will probably take her a little longer.”

With the NBA Playoffs on the line, Curry will likely pursue an accelerated recovery schedule. Unlike the returning MVP, however, “most of us can afford to be a little more conservative in the long haul,” Conlon says.

What kind of physical therapy is effective for recovering from an MCL sprain?

Years ago, physical therapists would have immobilized the knee after an injury. Now, however, physical therapists understand it’s important to keep the knee relatively mobile, without putting weight on it, to gradually allow it to heal.

“If I were treating Steph, I’d want to allow him to move without putting undue stress on the tissue,” says Conlon. “I’d avoid a lateral lunge to his right, for example, because that would put stress on his knee similar to that of his injury. You need to move the joint and place some minimal stress on the tissue. It’s going to be essential for the healing process.”


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