Knee Sprains vs. Tears: Comparing Symptoms, Treatments & Prevention

Medically Reviewed By | Johannah Gregg, DNP FNP-C

The knee is the largest joint in the human body and has an incredibly intricate anatomical structure. It plays a crucial role in many athletic movements and constantly carries a lot of physical stress. 

It is also one of the most injury-prone areas of the body and is the most commonly damaged joint in athletic-related injuries among adolescents in the United States. So, what is the difference between two of the most common knee injuries?

What Is a Knee Sprain?

The knee has four main components: bone, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Ligaments are pieces of tissue that hold together all of the bones surrounding the joint and are what come into play when a sprain occurs.

Sprains happen when some of the fibers that make up a ligament overstretch. Overstretching all of these fibers results in a severe sprain.

What Is a Knee Tear?

There are four ligaments in the knee that are vulnerable to tearing: the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL), the lateral collateral ligament (LCL), and the medial collateral ligament (MCL). A tear occurs when the fibers of the ligament separate completely or rupture.

If you tear a knee ligament, you will most likely hear a loud popping sound during the injury's movement, notice swelling for up to 24 hours after the injury, feel looseness in your knee, and experience instability, resulting in being unable to put any weight on your leg.

Causes of a Knee Sprain

Knee sprain can happen due to different reasons. Understanding these reasons can help prevent knee sprains and keep your knees healthy. Activities that put you at risk could be:

  • Sudden changes in direction, especially during sports like basketball, soccer, and football, when you plant your leg and twist to turn.
  • Falls or direct blows to your knee. A hard hit to the knee, like a fall or accident, can damage the ligaments.
  • Repetitive motions that strain the knee joint, particularly without proper recovery time, can cause a sprain.
  • Weak leg muscles can sprain your knee during activities that put pressure on the joint.

Causes of a Knee Tear

Knee tears can be caused by more forceful movements or incidents than sprains. Unlike sprains, which can happen from overuse, tears are usually caused by a single forceful incident or movement. Some common causes are:

  • Sports that involve sudden stops, spinning, or jumping, like basketball, soccer, or skiing, can place a lot of stress on the knee and cause tears.
  • Twisting the knee with serious force while bearing weight can tear the ligaments or meniscus.
  • A forceful effect on the knee, like a car accident or a hard fall, can cause a tear.
  • As you age, the cartilage in your knee becomes thinner and the ligaments become stiffer and more vulnerable to tears.

Symptoms of a Knee Sprain

The symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the sprain. However, the most common symptom of a knee sprain is pain, which worsens with movement or bearing weight on the knee. The pain could be sharp or throbbing, and it can easily be located on the sides, front, or back of the knee. 

Apart from the throbbing pain, the knee joint will likely well up, feel stiff, and become difficult to bend or straighten fully. Bruising may appear around the knee joint, and your knee might feel loose or unstable. 

In some cases, you may also hear a popping sound at the time of the injury. If you experience any of these symptoms, see a doctor to get a proper diagnosis and treatment.

Symptoms of a Knee Tear

Knee tears cause more severe symptoms than sprains. The pain from a tear is more intense than a sprain, and it may be constant and throbbing. Swelling caused by a tear can be much more pronounced and may develop rapidly. 

The knee joint may get stuck in a bent position or feel like it’s catching or locking when you try to move it. It may feel unstable, and it could be difficult to walk or put weight on it. You might have difficulty bending or straightening your knee due to pain or the joint being locked.

If you experience any of these symptoms after a forceful hit or twist, consult a doctor immediately to prevent long-term complications.

Treatment of Knee Tear

To confirm a torn ligament, you should see a doctor for discussion regarding imaging needed to evaluate further. After confirmation, your doctor can tell you the grade of your tear (how severe the tear is) and discuss treatment options with you. If your tear is a higher grade, you might need reconstructive surgery. 

After surgery or the decision to bypass surgery, you will need to attend to your knee and work on rebuilding strength. To do so, you will have to rest, stick to recovery exercises, and promote blood flow to the area. 

During the treatment process of a ligament tear, rely on the Incrediwear Knee Sleeve to support your recovery and soothe symptoms. Rather than working like a compression garment, our knee sleeve uses semiconductor elements that increase circulation to support healing, soothe pain and improve range of motion.

Prevention of Knee Sprain

If you want to push your body to the limits and promote muscle recovery without worrying about spraining your knee, be sure to wear men’s or women’s performance pants. These pants have semiconductor elements that provide comfort, durability, and improved circulation during activity.

Prevention of Knee Tear

The most common way to tear a ligament in your knee is to partake in activities that require you to pivot, turn, or twist your leg quickly, such as soccer and basketball. Therefore, if you are concerned about preventing a tear in your knee, it’s best to avoid these sports or come prepared with protective gear. 

Dr. Gregg notes that strengthening the hamstrings and quadriceps can be incredibly helpful for prevention, too.

If you want to stay active, be sure to exercise on level surfaces, add variety to your exercise routine, use proper body mechanics, and warm up before exercising. Additionally, you can use our Knee Sleeve to protect yourself when exercising or playing sports.


A sprain involves damage to the fibers in the ligaments, while a tear involves damage to the ligaments in the knee, including the ACL, PCL, LCL, or MCL. 

Whether a sprain or a tear, treatment is available. Incrediwear sleeves can also support your healing throughout the process through increased circulation from the proprietary technology which incorporates semiconductor elements into the fabric to support healthy blood flow, speed up recovery and soothe discomfort.

Frequently Asked Questions

What’s the difference between a knee sprain and a ligament tear?

The main difference is the severity of the ligament damage. A sprain happens when the ligament is overstretched or partially torn, while a ligament tear is a rupture of the ligament. The symptoms could be more intense in a ligament tear than a knee sprain, making it difficult to walk or bear weight. Consulting a doctor is important for both injuries, but tears require more extensive treatment due to their severity.

How do you tell if your knee is sprained or torn?

Although some symptoms are similar, there are major differences. Sprains cause moderate pain, swelling, and stiffness, but you can usually bear weight. Tears cause intense pain, serious swelling, and difficulty bending or straightening the knee. It might feel unstable or like it could give way. If unsure, see a doctor.

Can you still walk with a torn ligament in your knee?

In some cases, walking might be possible with a torn ligament if there are minor tears. But it’s not recommended. Walking can worsen the injury, cause further ligament damage, and increase recovery time. If you suspect a ligament tear, use crutches or a brace for support.

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