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ACL vs MCL Tear - What's the Difference?

A painful injury you certainly don’t want to endure is a knee injury, and yet torn knee ligaments are unfortunately quite common.


 If you’ve ever heard about a torn ACL or MCL - it’s likely you’ve heard about it in relation to a famous sports player being out for the rest of the season. Our NRL, AFL, League and Soccer players are known for sustaining these injuries. Mostly affecting athletes, runners, sports players, or avid fitness enthusiasts, ACL and MCL tears are feared by many as (depending on the severity of the tear), they can often take months to recover, or worse require surgery.


Although the conditions may sound similar, an ACL vs MCL tear do have their differences. This guide will break down the differences between the two injuries, to help you distinguish what your injury is, how it can be managed, and how long you’ll be off the pitch. 


causes of acl tear

What is an ACL?


The ACL stands for anterior cruciate ligament. This ligament is located in the middle of the knee and connects the tibia (shinbone) and femur (thighbone). The ACL prevents the knee from simply buckling and giving way, as it stabilises the shinbone and blocks it from sliding forward.


What is a MCL?


MCL is an acronym for medial collateral ligament. A MCL is found inside the knee and its purpose is to stabilise the knee and stop the femur from sliding side to side.


What is an ACL and a MCL tear?


An ACL tear and a MCL tear are both an injury sustained to a knee ligament.


Both are graded in the same way to judge if the injury is just a sprain (which is when the ligament is stretched but not yet torn),a partial tear, or a full tear.


The grading system goes as follows:

  • Grade I: The ligament has been stretched by the injury, enough to damage it but not make a tear. This causes a slight sensitivity over the inside of the knee with mild swelling.

  • Grade II: Stretching the ligament so far it slightly tears and loosens. Creating a wobbly painful and swollen inside of the knee.

  • Grade III:  The ligament is stretched to breaking and completely tears or ruptures, triggering serious pain, inflammation, swelling in the knee, and total instability.


causes of MCL tear

What are the causes and symptoms of an ACL tear?


ACL tear causes:


  • A hard landing from a jump caused the leg to give way

  • A blow taken to the side of the knee whilst standing

  • Making a sharp sudden turn from the knee

  • Sudden stopping

  • Hyperextending the knee


Common ACL symptoms:


  • Pain varying from mild to intense depending on the extent of the tear

  • Can’t or have difficulty walking or standing

  • Noticeable swelling in the knee moments after the injury

  • No feeling down the leg, completely numb to the touch, this is in the most severe cases

  • Hearing a distinct ‘pop’ sound upon injury


If you are currently experiencing any of these symptoms after incurring an injury, it is vital that you see a medical professional relatively quickly. A medical professional can gauge the severity of the injury and recommend the appropriate treatment, so you don’t cause any further harm to the ligaments.


What are the causes and symptoms of an MCL tear?


Typical causes of an MCL tear:

  • Receiving a hit to the outside of the knee joint which pushes the knee inward, this usually only occurs if playing a sport

  • The knee is subjected to a harsh twisting motion


Symptoms of a MCL tear:

MCL tears present with most of the same symptoms as an ACL tear, except for the audible popping sound upon injury. The differing symptom for a MCL tear is it can also feel like your knee is ‘locking’ or catches when you try to walk.

ACL and MCL tear

Treatment for ACL and MCL tears


To treat any ligament tears, always first consult a healthcare professional like a physiotherapist, who can confirm your injury, and then suggest the most effective method for rehabilitation and recovery.


Generally, the initial conservative treatment for both a MCL and ACL tear is the RICE method.RICE stands for:

R – Rest

I – Ice

C – Compression

E – Elevation


The rice method combined with physiotherapy and a range of stretching and strengthening exercises can help the ligament recover, however, this is dependent on the extent of the tear. A sprain or partial tear is likely to be able to heal on its own if you are applying the above treatment, a fully torn ligament is not, and in severe cases, will require surgery to fix.


At Infinite Health, our team of physiotherapists are no strangers to MCL and ACL tears and know just what to do to help put you on the path to recovery. Book a physiotherapy appointment with us to help get your knee back on track. Find a clinic near you whether you’re in Mosman, Sydney CBD, North Sydney, or Chatswood.


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