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The Open Rehabilitation Journal , 2013, 6, 1-20 1
1874-9437/13 2013 Bentham Open
Ligament Injury and Healing: A Review of Current Clinical Diagnostics
R.A. Hauser*, E.E. Dolan, H.J. Phillips, A.C. Newlin, R.E. Moore and B.A. Woldin
Caring Medical & Rehabilitation Services, S.C. 715 Lake Street, Ste. 600, Oak Park, IL 60301, USA
Abstract: Ligament injuries are among the most common causes of musculoskeletal joint pain and disability encountered
in primary practice today. Ligament injures create disruptions in the balance between joint mobility and joint stability,
causing abnormal force transmission through the joint, which results in damage to other structures in and around the joint.
The long-term consequence of nonhealed ligament injury is osteoarthritis, the most common joint disorder in the world
Ligaments heal through a distinct sequence of cellular events that take place in three consecutive stages: an acute
inflammatory phase, a proliferative or regenerative phase, and a tissue remodeling phase. The process can take months to
resolve itself, and despite advances in therapeutics, many ligaments do not regain their normal tensile strength.
Various diagnostic procedures have been used to determine and assess ligament injury. Traditionally, MRI and X-ray s
have been the most utilized techniques; however, because ligaments do not show up clearly with these devices, there have
been many false positives and negatives reported due to inconclusive or inaccurate readings. Newer technologies, such as
ultrasound and digital motion X-ray, are able to provide a more detailed image of a ligament’s structure and function.
Numerous strategies have been employed over the years attempting to improve ligament healing after injury or surgery.
One of the most important of these is based on the understanding that monitoring early resumption of activity can
stimulate repair and restoration of function and that prolonging rest may actually delay recovery and adversely affect the
tissue’s response to repair. Likewise, there is a shift away from the use of steroid injections and nonsteroidal anti-
inflammatory medications. Although these compounds have been shown effective in decreasing the inflammation and
pain of ligament injuries for up to six to eight weeks, their use has been shown to inhibit the histological, biochemical, and
biomechanical properties of ligament healing. For this reason their use is cautioned against in athletes who have ligament
injuries. Such products are no longer recommended for chronic soft tissue injuries or for acute ligament injuries, except
for the shortest possible time, if at all.
Regenerative medicine techniques, such as prolotherapy, have been shown, in both case series and clinical studies, to
resolve ligament injuries of the spine and peripheral joints. More research and additional studies are needed to better
assess ligament injuries and healing properties.
Keywords: Anterior cruciate ligament, joint mobility and stability, ligament healing, osteoarthritis, prolotherapy, regenerative
Ligaments are dense bands of fibrous connective tissue
that serve to join two or more bones of the musculoskeletal
system. They may appear as long sheets of opaque tissue or
as short thickened strips in joint capsules and can vary in
size, shape, orientation, and location. Ligaments cross joints
that have both wide ranges of motion and little motion and
function primarily to provide stabilization of joints when at
rest and during normal range of motion. Although ligaments
were once thought to be inactive structures, they are in fact
complex tissues that respond to many local and systemic
*Address correspondence to this author at the Caring Medical &
Rehabilitation Services, S.C. 715 Lake Street, Ste. 600, Oak Park, IL 60301,
USA; Tel: 708.848.7789; Fax: 708.848.7763;
Ligament injuries are among the most common causes of
musculoskeletal joint pain and disability encountered in
primary practice today. Ligament injuries cause disruptions
in the balance between joint mobility and joint stability; this
imbalance can lead to abnormal transmission of forces
throughout the joint and can result in damage to other
structures in and around the joint. The joints most often
affected by ligament injuries are the knees, hips, shoulders,
ankles, elbows, and wrists.
Ligaments are the most frequently injured tissues within
a joint. About 150,000 ACL injuries occur annually in the
United States, and more than 4 million knee arthroscopies
are performed worldwide each year [2, 3]. ACL tears rank
second to ankle sprains as the leading cause of injury in
college athletes, and the incidence of these tears is increasing
at about 1.3% a year in this population . This same trend
is being observed in the pediatric population, as ACL tears
are reported to be the leading cause of knee injuries in
2 The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
children, and ligaments in general, the cause of 36% of all
childhood knee injuries .
Ligamen t injuries can be classified as either in trinsic or
extrinsic, meaning they can occur as a resu lt of improper
motion within the joint or be caused by external factors. In
athletic settings, ligament injuries are most often caused by
collisions between athletes. The most common mechanisms
of injury include blunt trauma, planting or pivoting, and
anterior subluxation of the joint, all of which can overstretch
the ligament, sometimes to the point of tearing [6-9].
Women are known to be more ligament dominant and
men, more muscle dominant [10, 11]. Consequently,
sprained ligaments occur more frequently in women than in
men. It has been speculated that there may also be a
relationship between ligament injury and timing of the
menstrual cycle, suggesting that hormonal factors may make
women mor e prone to ligament injury .
While there is a vast body of knowledge available
regarding the structure and function of normal ligaments,
there has been limited data addressing the effects of injury
on ligament structure and function in terms of the variability
and unpredictable nature of ligament healing. However
problematic this course of healing may be, it is likely due to
the dramatic physiological and structural changes that
ligaments undergo as a result of injury, as well as to the
complex and dynamic cellular processes that occur during
healing. These processes cause alterations in the biology and
biomechanics of the injured ligament, leading to inadequate
healing and tissue formation that is inferior to the tissue it
has replaced. The incomplete healing and lower integrity of
the new ligament tissue results in ligament laxity,
predisposing the joint to further injury. This cycle of
ligament injury and subsequent laxity causes join t instability,
which then leads to chronic pain, diminished function, and
ultimately, to osteoarthritis (OA) of the affected joint [23-
Despite the use of numerous strategies over the years,
attempts to improve lig ament healing after injury have not
been entirely successful. OA remains the long-term
consequence of ligament injury and continues to be the most
common joint disorder in the world . Therefore,
understanding the complex cellular processes that occur after
ligament injury, as well as determining and implementing
those strategies that optimize ligament restoration, are
necessary steps in reducing the enormous individual and
public health burden of OA.
LIGAMENT STRUCTURE AND FUNCTION
Ligaments are composed primarily of water, collagen,
and various amino acids. Of the total ligament mass,
approximately two-thirds is comprised of water and one-
third, of solids . Collagen represents approximately 75%
of the dry weight of ligaments and proteoglycans, elastin,
glycoproteins and other proteins make up the remaining
25%. Type I collagen accounts for nearly 85% of the total
collagen within ligaments, the remainder of which consists
of, by weight, types III, VI, V, XI, and XIV collagen [1, 28].
Microscopy of ligament tissues has shown that bundles of
collagen fibers are composed of smaller fibrils arranged in
parallel along the long axis of the ligament. As the collagen
fibers assemble, they assume a characteristic cross-linked
pattern, the formation of which appears to be specially
designed because it contributes to the tremendous strength
that ligaments have. Under microscope, the collagen bundles
appear undulated or crimped along their length and it is
believed that the crimping is present in relation to the
loading capacity or tension applied to the ligaments. Upon
load-bearing, certain areas of the ligament crimp, allowing
the tissue to elongate without sustaining structural damage
[1, 29]. It appears that some fibers tighten or loosen
depending on musculoskeletal positioning and applied
forces, either of which supports the joint through various
tensions and ranges of motion.
Fibroblasts, which are located between the rows of
collagen fibers, produce and maintain the extracellular
matrix. Recent studies suggest that fibroblast cells in normal
ligaments may be capable of cell-to-cell communication,
allowing the coordination of cellular and metabolic
processes throughout the tissue [1, 30, 31]. Proteoglycans,
which reside in the ex tracellular matrix, store water and
contribute to the viscoelastic properties of ligaments. These
viscoelastic attributes allow ligaments to progressively
lengthen when under tension and return to their original
shape when the tension is removed.
Ligaments attach to bones at specific sites on the bone
called “insertions.” Ligaments and their insertion sites can
both vary in configuration; however, their geometric shape
appears to relate to the manner in which the fibers within the
ligament are engaged as the joint moves. The direction of
joint movement determines which fibers within a particular
ligament are recruited to ex ecute a specific movement.
Ligaments are covered by a vascular and cellular overlying
layer called the epiligament, which is often indistinguishable
from the actual ligament. The epiligament contains sensory
and proprioceptive nerves, the larger percentage of which is
located closer to the boney ligament insertion sites [1, 32,
33]. When ligaments are strained, the proprioceptive nerves
initiate neurological feedback signals that activate muscle
contraction around the joint, allowing the body to protect and
stabilize the joint after injury. Ligaments prevent excessive
motion of joints by providing passive stabilization and
guiding joints through normal range of motion under tensile
load. In doing so, ligaments are able to transfer force to and
from the skeleton while dynamically distributing the loads
applied to them in order to perform specific movement
Although more frequently seen with tendons, ligaments
can also attach to the periosteum, a tissue that plays a major
role in bone growth and bone repair and has an impact on the
blood supply of bone and skeletal muscle. The periosteum is
composed of an outer fibrous layer and an inner layer called
the cambium .
The outer fibrous layer is comprised of a superficial
portion that is essentially in elastic and cell deficient and a
deeper portion that is fibroelastic, yet also cell deficient. The
superficial portion contains a matrix that is predominantly
collagenous and composed of small compact bundles
interspersed with elongated fibroblasts. It is the more highly
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 3
Table 1. Demographic Data from National ACL Registry Databases
Shift away from using
patellar tendon autografts to
hamstring tendon autografts
F: 26.8//13-68 Reconstruction
Consistent increase in IR of
ACL reconstructions in
female population, with
largest increase in 14-17 age
Age at surgery highest in
Denmark, except for
females <20 yrs; clinically,
KOOS scores not
between registries, except
that Denmark reports more
injuries, > 1
per 1000 A-
NA NA Diagnosis
10+ days of
ACL injur ies increased
1.3% per year, P = .02
KP ACLR 9849 M: 6331
Prevalence of graft source
(P<.001); older and female
patients wi th lower BM I
more like ly to receive
allografts and hamstring
autografts than BPTB
52, 1 yr
Patients < 20 yrs old at time
of primary reconstruction at
higher risk for revision.
Subjective outcomes less
favorable for revision
High similarity of base line
findings between NKLR
and KP ACLRR cohorts
allows for generalization of
4 The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
vascularized of the two substrata and contains a rich neural
network. Although the superficial portion is the primary
contributor to the blood supply of bone and skeletal muscle,
the nerve fibers it contains generally terminate at the deeper
substratum. Periosteal tendon attachments also terminate in
the fibroelastic portion. Like its counterpart, the deeper
portion is also highly collagenous, but is poorly vascularized.
Because of its many elastic fibers, the deeper substratum is
characterized by a high degree of elasticity .
In contrast, the cambium layer is highly cellular,
composed of mesenchymal progenitor cells, differentiated
osteogenic progenitor cells, fibroblasts, and osteoblasts that
reside in a sparse collagenous matrix. Although the cambium
appears to be the core component of the periosteum, its
integrity diminishes with age. It is thickest in the fetus and
becomes progressively thinner with age—so much so, that in
the adult it cannot be distinguished from the overlaying
fibrous layer. Vessel density and the number of periosteal
fibroblasts experience the same fate, so that the periosteum
at adulthood is a shell of its former self, existing only as a
very thin tissue enveloping the bony structures .
As an enthesis, the periosteum closely wraps all bone,
except for that of the articulating surfaces in joints, which is
covered instead by a synovial membrane. Like other points
of attachment, the periosteum can undergo trauma or become
diseased, whereby recurring stress causes inflammation and
often fibrosis and calcification.
Ligaments also provide joint homeostasis through their
viscoelastic properties, a function that reflects the complex
interactions between the collagens, proteoglycans, water, and
other proteins [1, 36]. These viscoelastic properties, along
with the recruitment of crimped collagen, contribute to th e
mechanical behavior of the structure under loading
conditions. When tension is applied, ligaments deform (ie,
elongate) in a non-linear manner through the recruitment of
crimped collagen fibers. As the tension placed on the
ligament increases, the collagen fibers progressively elongate
(un-crimp), until all fibers are nearly linear (see Fig. 1). As
the fibers become increasingly linear, the ligament structure
becomes increasingly stiff. Varying degrees of ligament
stiffness are necessary for various loads and various ranges
of joint motion.
When an applied load causes all fibers to become nearly
linear, the ligament continues to absorb energy until tensile
failure or disruption of the tissue. Just as it does with
overstretched ligaments, joint instability occurs with
ligament disruptions or tears, often with more severity.
Through their viscoelastic properties, ligaments are capable
(Table 1) contd…..
CL injuries more
prevalent in males, but
occur at younger age in
females; 1st study of
baseline epidemiology for
all CL injuries
M: 179 (89%)
F: 165 (95%)
M: 22 (11%)
F: 9 (5 %)
and knee-related QoL
improved after 2 and 6-
year follow-ups, but
physical activity level
(Marx) dropped over
F: 198 26/12-63 Revision 76
Most common mode of
failure: traumatic reinjury;
graft choice: allograft
(54%), especially bone-
patellar tendon-bone type
M: 20; F: 9
M: 22 F: NA
reconstruction results in a
worse outcome than
reconstruction, as shown
by statistically and
decreases in the Marx
Abbreviations: SNACLR: Swedish National ACL Register; NCAA ISS: Natio nal Collegiate Athletic Association Injury Surv eillance System; KPSC: Kaiser Permanente Sou thern
California; DACLRR: Danish ACL Reconstruction Registry; NKLR: Norwegian National Knee Ligament Registry; KP ACLRR: Kaiser Permanente Anterior Cruciate Ligament
Registry; SNPR Swedish National Patien t Register; MOON: Multicenter Orthopaedic Outcomes Network; MARS: Multicenter ACL Revision Study.
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 5
Fig. (1). Ligament structural strength graph. As the load is increased,
more ligament fibers are recruited (straight lines), and the slack or
creep in the fibers is removed until the entire ligament tears. The
load at complete failure of the ligament rep resents its maximum
of both creep and load relaxation activity and exhibit these
behaviors in an attempt to prevent overstretching and
disruption. Creep and relaxation action help to prevent
fatigue failure of the tissue when ligaments are loaded in
tension. Creep is defined as the deformation or elongation of
a ligament over time under a constant load or stress. Load
relaxation refers to a decrease in stress of the tissue over time
when the ligament is subjected to a constant elongation [37-
When ligaments are stretched or elongated past a certain
point for a prolonged period of time, they can lose their
ability to retain their original shape. When this occurs, the
ligament becomes lax and unable to properly support the
joint, leading to instability and pain, and eventually to OA of
LIGAMENTS AS SENSORY ORGANS AND THE
While ligaments are predominantly known as stabilizing
agents in the joints, they also have an equally important role
as sensory organs involved in ligamento-muscular reflexes.
As sensory organs, ligaments are able to protect the joint and
prevent injury when the ligament and joint are under stress.
Histological studies demonstrate that ligaments contain
mechanoreceptors endowed with nerve endings called
Pacinian corpuscles, Golgi tendon organs, and Ruffini
endings . Mechanoreceptors in ligaments of the spine
and extremities respond to stimuli that provide
proprioception and kinesthesia, causing activation or
inhibition of muscular activities  (see Fig. 2). The
ligamento-muscu lar reflex is a protective reflex emanating
from sensory receptors in the ligamen ts to muscles, the
transmission of which appears to directly or indirectly
modify th e load imposed on the lig ament.
The ligamento-muscular reflex has been studied most
extensively in the ACL, although its presence has been
Fig. (2). Ligaments as a Sensory Organ. Basic organizational plan adapted from Johansson H, Sojka P. A Sensory Role for the Cruciate
Ligaments. Clinical Orthopaedics and Related Research. 1991; (268): 161-178.
6 The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
proven to exist in most extremity joints . Biomechanical
studies reveal two main functions of the ACL reflex: joint
stability and muscular inhibition. When the reflexes of the
muscles involved are activated, they act to prevent joint
distraction  and reduce stress on the ACL  and work
together in an excitatory manner to create stability in the
joint. More recent studies have focused on the inhibitory
effects of the ligamento-muscular reflex, which protect
ligaments by reducing the buildup of force in the muscles
that stress them [44, 45]. For example, the inhibitory reflex
prevents force in the quadriceps which would otherwise fully
flex the knee joint and cause distraction, both of which place
stress on the ACL. Similar inhibitory control can also be
observed in the medial collateral ligament (MCL) of the
ankle. For example, the inhibitory reflex is able to prevent
eversion of the foot by activating intrinsic muscles in the
extremity . Overall, muscular activation caused by
ligament reflexes provides for the preservation of joint
stability , either directly by muscles crossing the joint or
indirectly by muscles not crossing the joint .
LIGAMENT RESPONSE TO INJURY
When ligaments are exposed to loading over an extended
period of time, they increase in mass, stiffness, and load to
failure . However, when a ligament is overloaded, or
exposed to tensions greater than the structure can sustain, the
tissue fails, resulting in partial or complete ligament
discontinuities, more commonly known as disruptions or
tears. When these discontinuities occur, the body responds
by attempting to heal the injury through a specialized
sequence of overlapping, but distinct, cellular events. These
events are part of the body’s response to insult and occur
with any soft tissue injury. They can be categorized by three
consecutive phases that occur over time: the acute
inflammatory phase, the proliferative or regenerative/repair
phase, and the tissue-remodeling phase (see Fig. 3).
The acute inflammatory phase begins within minutes of
injury and continues over the next 48 to 72 hours. During
this phase, blood collects at the site of injury and platelet
cells interact with certain matrix components, changing their
shape and initiating clot formation. The platelet-rich fibrin
clot releases growth factors that are necessary for healing
and provides a platform on which many cellular events
occur. Several growth factors have been identified, including
Platelet-Derived Growth Factor, Transforming Growth
Factor-B, Vascular Endothelial Growth Factor, and
Fibroblast Growth Factor. Each of these growth factors has a
specific role in the inflammatory process. For instance,
Platelet-Derived Growth Factor and Transforming Growth
Factor-B attract immune system cells to the area and
stimulate them to proliferate; Vascular Endothelial Growth
Factor aids in new blood vessel formation, which increases
vascularity in injured areas; and Fibroblast Growth Factor
promotes the growth of cells involved in collagen and
cartilage formation. Additionally, when stimulated by
growth factors, neutrophils, monocytes, and other immune
cells migrate to the injured tissue where they ingest and
remove debris and damaged cells produced during the
inflammatory phase, thereby initiating matrix turnover.
The proliferative/repair phase begins when immune cells
release various growth factors and cytokines. This initiates
fibroblast proliferation signals for rebuilding of the ligament
tissue matrix. The tissue formed initially appears as
disorganized scar tissue, consisting of more blood vessels,
fat cells, fibroblasts, and inflammatory cells than normal
ligament tissue contains [1, 46]. Over the next several weeks,
fibroblast cells deposit various types of collagen,
proteoglycans, glycoproteins, and other proteins into the
matrix. The collagen becomes aligned with the long axis of
the ligament during this time; however, the newly-formed
collagen fibrils are abnormal and smaller in diameter than
normal ligament tissue.
After a few weeks, the proliferative phase merges in to
the remodeling phase, during which time collagen
maturation begins, often lasting for months to as long as
years after the initial injury. With time, the tissue matrix
starts to resemble normal ligament tissue; however, critical
differences in matrix structure and function persist. In fact,
evidence suggests that the injured ligament structure is
replaced with tissue that is grossly, histologically,
biochemically, and biomechanically similar to scar tissue
[37, 47, 48] (see Fig. 4). As Frank et al. note, even “fully
remodeled scar tissue” remains grossly, microscopically, and
functionally different from normal tissues  (see Fig. 5).
Thus, the remodeling phase of ligament repair can
continue for many months to years, during which time the
Fig. (3). The intensity and approximate amount of time in the three stages of healing: inflammatory, proliferative and remodeling phases of
an injured ligamen t. (Adapted from Cruess et al . Healing of bone, tendon, and ligament. 1975).
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 7
collagen and ligament matrices are continually overturned by
tissue synthesis and tissue degradation. These processes
provide ongoing opportunities for the ligament to adapt,
either by becoming more functionally improved or degrading
and failing with applied loads.
The persisting abnormalities present in the remodeled
ligament matrix can have profound implications on joint
biomechanics, depending on the functional demands placed
on the tissue. Since remodeled ligament tissue is
morphologically and biomechanically inferior to normal
ligament tissue, ligament laxity results, causing functional
disability of the affected joint and predisposing other soft
tissues in and around the joint to further damage. Some of
the identifiable differences between remodeled matrix and
normal ligament matrix include alterations to proteoglycans
and types of collagen, failure of collagen crosslinks to
mature, persistence of small collagen fibril diameters, altered
cell connections, increased vascularity, abnormal
innervations, increased cellularity and the incomplete
resolution of matrix flaws [1, 28, 49, 50-54]. Although
research suggests that persisting collagen abnormalities may
be the most critical aspect of regaining ligament tissue
function, virtually all other tissue components are likely to
play equally important roles in tissue function, either directly
or indirectly [46, 49, 55-57].
One such tissue component is the synovial fluid, a
viscous and mucinous substance that lubricates the joints.
All non-weight-bearing joints are lined with synovium, the
tissue that produces synovial fluid, the capsule of which is
encased in a dense connective tissue layer of collagen.
Synovial fluid is an ultrafiltrate of plasma which combines
with hyaluronate, a mucopolysaccharide synthesized by the
Fig. (4). Difference between normal ligaments and scars.
Fig. (5). Histological appearances of midsubstance 'flaws' within rabbit MCL scars, showing different types of defects within the new matri:
(A) blood vessels, (B) fat cells, (C) loose collagen, (D) disorganized collag en, (E) inflammatory site with little matrix, (F) a combination of
all. All Haematoxylin and Eosin stain x 125 magnification (Fig. 5 used with permission from Frank et al.).
8 The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
synovium, which sticks to the sliding surfaces to keep them
Synovial joints consist of a soft tissue system and a
cartilage-on-cartilage system, both of which require
lubrication. Lubrication of the soft tissue system is
dependent on hyaluronate, while lubrication of the cartilage-
on-cartilage system is dependent on a glycoprotein fraction
of the synovial fluid. The lubricating properties of synovial
fluid in the soft tissue system are directly related to the
concentration and molecular weight of the hyaluronate. The
function of synovial fluid is two-fold: to aid in the
mechanical workings of joints by lubricating the articulatin g
surfaces and to aid in transporting nutritional substances
such as glucose to the articular cartilage .
Normally, the amount of synovial fluid in the joints is
quite small; in the knee joint, this is usually no more than 4
mL of fluid. Normal synovial fluid is colorless and clear and
very viscous because of its high concentration of
polymerized hyaluronate. In the presence of inflammation,
synovial fluid becomes yellow and cloudy and drops in
Synovial fluid contains similar levels of glucose and uric
acid but about one-third the level of synovial fluid protein.
Synovial fluid glucose levels are typically 10 mg/dL or less
below serum levels, but in the setting of joint disorders, they can
decrease to as much as 20 mg/dL below normal serum levels.
Uric acid levels in synovial fluid range from 6 to 8 mg/dL. The
normal range for synovial fluid protein is 1-3 g/dL. Patients
with arthritis are known to have increased synovial fluid protein
levels. Synovial fluid contains all proteins found in plasma,
except for some high-molecular weight proteins such as
fibrinogen which can be present in minute amounts. Fibrinogen
can enter the synovial capsule during damage to the synovial
membrane or as a result of trauma. Increased fibrinogen can
cause clotting of the synovial fluid .
Vascular permeability and synovial membrane
permeability are altered by inflammation, which is reflected
in differences in the protein content and other changes in
diseased synovial fluid. Inflammatory synovial fluid is
generally characterized by alterations in its volume,
decreasing viscosity, and increasing cellularity, which can
affect the number of monocytes and lymphocytes, and
occasionally those of erythrocytes .
REMODELED LIGAMENTS – NOT NEARLY AS
GOOD AS NEW
As noted earlier, normal ligament tissue is primarily
composed of type I collagen which is the protein responsible
for the stiffness and strength of the tissue. It is the densely
packed cross-linked nature of type I collagen fibrils that
accounts for the stability, strength, and stiffness of normal
ligaments. However, after injury, fibroblasts primarily
synthesize type III collagen, not type I collagen, which it
produces to a much smaller degree [60, 61]. The abnormal
cross-linking of collagen and the smaller diameters in
collagen fibrils in repaired ligament tissue cause weakness in
both tissue strength and tissue stiffness, often remaining for
months or years after initial injury [46, 49, 50, 52, 56, 62,
63]. In addition, evidence suggests that remodeled collagen
fibrils are not packed as densely as in normal ligaments, and
the remodeled tissue appears to contain materials other than
collagen, such as blood vessels, fat cells, and inflammatory
cell pockets, all of which contribute to its weakness [1, 46,
Most animal studies have focused on the ACL and MCL
of the knee joint. In order to better understand ligament
healing, many of these studies have used the MCLs of
rabbits as experimental models. Such studies have shown
that healing or remodeled MCLs are ultimately weaker, less
stiff, and absorb less energy before failure, compared with
normal MCLs [62, 64, 65]. Several studies have documented
that conservatively treated injured MCLs typically regain
only 40% to 80% of their structural stiffness and strength
compared with normal MCLs [37, 39, 49].
On the other hand, the viscoelastic properties of injured
MCLs have a better recovery, returning to within 10% to
20% of normal MCL capacity. Nevertheless, these tissues
continue to exhibit greater stress relaxation, indicating that,
once ligaments have sustained injury, they remain less
efficient in maintaining loads than normal ligaments .
Remodeled MCLs also exhibit inferior creep properties,
elongating more than twice as much as normal MCLs, even
at low tensions [1, 49, 66, 67]. In addition, remodeled MCLs
are at risk for permanent elongation because they do not
appear to return to their original length, although they are
able to load as quickly or as completely as normal MCLs
. The resultant laxity of the healing MCL leads to
mechanical instability of the knee joint, which alters the
contact mechanics of the joint. Wh en the knee (or any joint)
is unstable, sliding between joint surfaces increases, and the
efficiency of muscles surrounding the joint decreases. This
causes alterations in the load distribution of the joint, which
disrupts the underlying cartilage and bone, causing wear and
increasing shear. In time, this leads to osteochondral
degeneration or OA .
Animal studies have also shown that different ligaments
heal at different rates [37, 68-73] and that combined
ligament injuries heal at a slower rate than isolated injures
and produce tissue of lower quality [37, 68, 69, 74-78]. More
specifically, ACL and MCL structures tend to heal at varying
rates comparatively, and the quality of remodeled tissue
overall among different animal species remains inferior to
that of normal ligaments [53, 54, 56, 60, 63, 68, 79-83]. In
fact, studies of healing ligaments have consistently shown
that certain ligaments do not heal independently following
rupture, and those that do heal, do so with characteristically
inferior compositional properties compared with normal
tissue [64, 74, 84, 85]. It is not uncommon for more than one
ligament to undergo injury during a single traumatic event.
For instan ce, rabb it models with combined ACL/MCL
injuries show inferior structural and material properties on
examination of the healing MCL, compared with those of a
model with an isolated MCL injury [68, 69, 75-78]. Some
researchers believe that this may be related to the immobility
of animals with painfully unstable knees or to the excessive
forces placed on the healing MCL tissue when there is also
damage to the ACL . Why some ligaments heal
spontaneously, albeit with inadequate tissue configuration,
and others exhibit very poor intrinsic healing ability may be
related to the specific properties of whatever ligament was
injured (partial or full disruption), to what type of injury the
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 9
ligament sustained, or to what interventions were employed
after the injury.
LIGAM ENT LAX ITY—PATHWAY TO OS TEO-
Osteoarthritis or joint degeneration is one of the most
common consequences of ligament laxity. Traditionally, the
pathophysiology of OA was thought to be due to aging and
wear and tear on a joint, but more recent studies have shown
that ligaments play a crucial role in the development of OA
[86, 87]. OA begins when one or more ligaments become
unstable or lax, and the bones begin to track improperly and
put pressure on different areas, resulting in the rubbing of
bone on cartilage. This causes the breakdown of cartilage
and ultimately leads to deterioration, whereby the joint is
reduced to bone on bone, a mechanical problem of the joint
that leads to abnormality of the joint’s mechanics [23, 87].
Hypermobility and ligament laxity have become clear
risk factors for the prevalence of OA [88, 89]. The results of
spinal ligament injury show that over time the inability of the
ligaments to heal causes an increase in the degeneration of
disc and facet joints, which eventually leads to osteochondral
degeneration [23, 90]. Studies of athletes who were followed
for 5-12 years after a ligament injury have reported an early
onset of OA in these patients and an inability for them to
return to their preinjury level of activity [23, 90]. At 10 years
postinjury, 21%-48% of these athletes were found to have
osteoarthritis, demonstrating the deleterious effects of ACL
and meniscus tears . A separate study following female
athletes for 12 years after an ACL injury reported that 50%
of the females had radiographic OA and approximately 80%
had other features of OA . Additionally, ligament studies
on guinea pigs have shown that ligament laxity could
predispose these animals to secondary as well as
spontaneous OA [87, 93, 94]. Thus, ligament laxity not only
leads to a higher prevalence of OA, but also increases
secondary factors of OA, namely, muscle weakness, joint
laxity, knee instability, and decreased function [95, 96].
DIAGNOSIS OF LIGAMENT INJURIES
The most important diagnostic tools in treating any
bodily injury are the patient’s physical symptoms. Ligament
tears occur most often during strenuous physical activity and
can often be identified by a distinct “pop” heard in the joint
at the time of injury. Characteristic symptoms of ligament
injury, whose onset may not be as instantaneous as the
popping sound, include pain, swelling, instability, and the
inability to withstand weight bearing.
Clinical examination techniques used to determine
ligament laxity are specific to each ligament, based on their
function and location. Knee injuries, for example, are
evaluated using four principle tests to determine the
functionality of each ligament. The anterior and posterior
drawer tests are performed to test the forward and backward
motion of the ACL and the posterior cruciate ligament
(PCL), respectively; the valgus and varus tests assess
internal and external limitations of the MCL and lateral
collateral ligament (LCL), respectively . Likewise, the
ankle is evaluated by a number of methods, including the
anterior drawer test of the anterior talofibular ligament
(ATFL), an inversion test of the ATFL and calcaneofibular
ligament (CFL), and an eversion test of the deltoid ligament
MRI – NO T ALWA YS THE BE ST TOO LS OF THE
Although magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been
utilized as a standard for decades in diagnosing ligament
sprains and tears, research suggests that it may be an
unnecessary component of effectively diagnosing and
treating injured ligaments. One major shortcoming in MRI
evaluation of ligaments is th at, while it is semi-effective at
recognizing major tissue disruptions including complete
ligament tears, MRI is unable to detect when ligaments are
lax or stretched . For instance, an injured ligament that
has become stretched two or even three times its normal
length appears no differently than an uninjured one because
MRI only shows soft tissue contrast, not tissue quality. The
sensitivity and accuracy of MRIs may also vary among
ligaments themselves, which makes it impractical to rely
solely on this method of imaging or use it as a gold standard
Another challenge of using MRI is that it has a tendency
to inaccurately diagnose false-positive ligament lesions,
whereas clinical assessment and/or subsequent arthroscopy
can be more accurate. In one such study comparing MRI to
arthroscopy reports, Ben-Galim et al. found a false-positive
rate of 47.2% for ACL tears in healthy subjects . In
another study, MRIs of wrists showed mild to moderate
ligament injury in every case although all subjects (elite
gymnasts) were asymptomatic .
With th e possibility of false-positive results comes the risk
of unnecessary treatments being performed, including surgical
procedures. In one study, surgeries for 33% of subjects with
positive MRIs for complete ACL tears were cancelled after
arthroscopy revealed incomplete lesions . In the Ben-
Galim study previously mentioned, 37% of surgeries deemed
necessary from MRI findings were later rendered unjustified
. Furthermore, studies comparing the accuracy of
diagnosing lesions from MRI findings with those obtained by
physical examination or found on arthroscopy revealed that
physical examination is at least as effective, if not more
effective, than MRI readings [103, 104]. These findings led Jah
and colleagues to conclude, “When MRI is normal, high clinical
suspicion and a skilled clinical examination are more reliable”
. Liu et al. echoed a similar sentiment, saying that
“inexpensive tests in the clinic can allow treatment to proceed
rapidly and in the most economical manner without the routine
use of MRI” .
Imaging by diagnostic musculoskeletal ultrasound has
also been utilized to view and diagnose various ligamentous
injuries . Sonography has the unique capability of
demonstrating the current physiologic state of
musculoskeletal anatomy. B-mode (brightness mode)
sonography is the display of variable tissue densities along a
linear grayscale. Because B-mode imaging displays the
entire physiologic spectrum from active inflammation to
resolved fibrosis, it is the hallmark of musculoskeletal
The unpredictable nature of ligament healing and the
variability of the tissue’s physiologic and structural
processes and alterations lend themselves to sonographic
10 The Open Rehabilita tion Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
evaluation. For instance, physiologic activity is translated
into detectable changes in echodensity, and structural
integrity and stability is depicted via dynamic imaging and
measurement  (see Fig. 6). Therefore, musculoskeletal
ultrasound enables clinicians to treat a patient’s symptoms
directly with the aid of image-guided procedures . This
also allows for the direct viewing of painful areas during
Fig. (6). Ultrasound image of an injured lateral collateral ligament
X-rays are also used to detect changes in joint structure
and signs of instability, which are often indications of
ligament failure. Although X-rays are not the standard
procedure for diagnosing ligament injury since the ligaments
themselves are not shown, they do pick up certain structural
abnormalities that are considered indicative of particular
ligament injuries . More recently, cineradiography such
as Digital Motion X-ray (DMX) has been used as a means of
visualizing the moving joint under radiography or
fluoroscopy. DMX is able to spot ligament damage that
static films and MRI miss and shows limitations of certain
motions of the joint, providing the clinician with insight into
the functionality of particular ligaments. Although it can be
used to observe the motion of any mobile joint, DMX is
particularly useful in diagnosing upper cervical ligament
injury, especially in th e case of C1-C2 vertebral segments
which have no discs.
CURRENT STRATEGIES FOR OPTIMIZING
LIGAMENT REPAIR: IN SEARCH OF THE HOLY
As discussed earlier, ligament healing is slow and often
incomplete. Joint laxity caused by ligament injury improves
slowly over a period of 6 weeks to a year, after which a large
percentage of patients still have objective mechanical laxity
and subjective joint instability [112, 113]. Hubbard et al.
report that up to 31% of patients with ligament injuries to th e
ankle exhibited a positive anterior drawer sign six months
after injury. Additionally, feelings of instability affected 7%
to 42% of participants up to one year after injury .
Several strategies have been implemented over the years
attempting to restore the properties of the injured ligament to
preinjury status including, rest, mobilization, non-steroidal
anti-inflammatory drugs, corticosteroid injections, and
prolotherapy. While each of these therapies can help
alleviate the subjective symptom of pain following ligamen t
injury, th ey do not all necessarily contribute to the actual
cellular repair and healing of ligament tissue. In fact, some
of these therapies have been shown detrimental to the
ligament healing process because they suppress and inhibit
certain cellular processes that are required for ligament tissue
repair. Others have been shown to contribute to healing
through stimulation of certain cellular processes involved in
the regeneration of ligament tissue.
IMMOBILIZATION AND REST
Traditionally, injured limbs have been treated with rest
by splinting or casting. While immobilization of the affected
joint has long been prescribed following ligament injury, it
has since been discovered that healing ligaments are
dramatically affected by the presence or absence of join t
motion. The theory has been that rest or immobilization
prevents further tissue damage in the joint by limiting its
movement, and thereby, decreasing pain and swelling. It has
also been thought that rest may help in improving recovery
time, in decreasing functional impairment, and in reducing
long-term pain. However, immobilizing a joint with a
ligament injury can cause detrimental side effects, such as
synovial adhesions , an increase in collagen
degradation and a subsequent decrease in collagen synthesis
, and a greater percentage of disorganized collagen
fibrils [62, 65]. Despite this evidence, rest and the RICE
(rest, ice, compression, elevation) protocol continue to be
routinely prescribed as first-line treatment for ligament,
tendon, and other soft tissue injuries.
Immobilization causes ligament physiology to
progressively change from an anabolic to a more catabolic
state. One study  clearly documented that increased or
decreased levels of exercise can substantially influence the
strength of ligaments, as measured by collagen fiber bundle
diameters in normal and repaired ligaments of dogs. The
study reported that there was a direct correlation between the
amount of exercise performed by the animal and the number
of collagen fibrils, their arrangement, and their average
thickness within the ligament.
Decreased load ing of ligament tissue alters matrix
turnover, so that with time, matrix degradation exceeds
formation, the newly synthesized matrix becomes less well
organized, and the tissue declines in stiffness and strength.
Furthermore, prolonged limb immobilization decreases the
content of water and glycosaminoglycans in the ligament and
alters the degree of orientation of the matrix collagen fibrils
within the tissue. Ultimately this causes the ligament to have
less mass and strength (see Fig. 7). Decreased ligament
loading also has a profound effect on the strength of the
ligament-bone junction (fibro-osseous junction) because
immobilization causes subperiosteal osteoclasts to resorb
much of the bony inserts of the ligaments. This event causes
a substantial decline in the tensile strength at the bone-
ligament interface . According to the most recent
systematic reviews on research into soft tissue injuries in
humans, no controlled studies appear to favor
immobilization for the treatment of ligament injuries [117,
MOBILIZATION AND EXERCISE
According to one systematic review by Kerkhoff et al.,
the authors’ evaluation of research on ankle ligament injuries
in 2,184 adults concluded that functional treatment involving
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 11
motion of the affected joint was a statistically significant
strategy for healing the injured ligament, compared with one
immobilizing the joint. Patients who treated their ligament
injuries with motion were able to return to work quicker and
resume sports activity sooner than those who were
immobilized, and had less objective instability, as shown by
stress X-ray . In another systematic review, early
mobilization was found to decrease pain, swelling and
stiffness, to preserve more of the ligament’s range of motion,
and to result in a quicker return to work .
Fig. (7). Ligament fiber bundle diameters. Ligament collagen fiber
diameters are increased with exercise and diminished significan tly
when limbs are immobilized. (Adapted from Tipton et al.).
Moreover, early controlled resumption of activity after
injury, including repetitive loading on injured soft tissue
structures, has been shown to have a number of beneficial
effects on the recovery of injured ligaments and tendons—
namely, enhancements in both synthetic and proliferative
cellular activity, increases in tissue mass and strength,
improvements in matrix organization , and shifts to more
normalized levels in collagen content . Additionally,
mobilization has been shown to benefit the injured ligament
by causing it to form more connective tissue, evolving into
tissue that was stronger and stiffer than its immobilized
counterpart [37, 69, 70, 119]. Animal studies have had
similar results, a number of which have shown that the
strength of repaired lig aments is greater in animals that were
allowed to continue exercising, rather than being forced to
Furthermore, a structured program of rehabilitation and
exercise can delay or possibly preclude ACL reconstruction.
The results of a randomized controlled clinical trial recently
published in the New England Journal of Medicine,
compared patients undergoing structured rehabilitation plus
early ACL reconstruction with those undergoing structured
rehabilitation with the option of later ACL reconstruction if
needed. On the basis of KOOS scores at baseline and at 2-
years follow-up, the study showed that a strategy of
rehabilitation plus early ACL reconstruction was not
superior to a strategy of rehabilitation plus optional delayed
ACL reconstruction. According to the authors, early
reconstruction as compared with the option of delayed
reconstruction did not result in a significant improvement of
the KOOS score or in any of the prespecified secondary
outcomes: pain, symptoms, functions in activities of daily
living and in sports and recreation, knee-related quality of
life, general h ealth status, activity level, and r eturn to
preinjury activity level at 2 years .
Rehabilitation following ACL surgery has been a subject of
controversy. However, today most agree that rehabilitation
exercises of the thigh muscles play an important role in healing.
Avoidance of early quadriceps contractions after repair or
reconstruction of the ACL has been advised by some, while
others have advocated for early isometric quadriceps and
hamstring contractions or for isotonic exercises within a limited
range of motion. Since hamstrings function is believed to
function synergistically with the ACL to prevent anterior
displacement of the tibia on the femur, many clinicians have
become advocates of rehabilitating the hamstrings when the
ACL has been damaged. A Swedish study which used knee
specimens remov ed from cadavers to measure ACL strain
during simulated hamstring activity alone, quadriceps activity
alone, and simultaneous quadriceps and hamstring activity
reported that the hamstrings are not capable of masking the
potentially harmful effects of simultaneous quadriceps
contraction on freshly repaired or reconstructed ACLs unless
the knee flexion angle exceeds 30°, concluding that hamstring
exercises are not detrimental to ACL repairs or reconstruction
and can be included early in the rehabilitation program after
ACL surgery .
Overall, it appears that carefully controlled exercise plans
promote healing of injured ligaments. Motion itself causes
an increase in blood flow to the affected joint, providing the
damaged tissue of the ligament with nutrients and
metabolites necessary for its repair and healing. Under
loading conditions, cells within the ligament sense tissue
strains and respond by modifying the tissue. Mobilization for
the treatment of soft tissue damage has also been found to
decrease muscle atrophy, osteoporosis, adhesions, and joint
stiffness following injury [125-131]. According to a review
by Hurley and Roth, studies have indicated that, even in
healthy and diseased older adults, short-term high-intensity
strength training is well tolerated and helps reduce
proinflammatory cytokines and knee joint loads. Despite
such reports that strength training is beneficial for people
with knee OA, the appropriate intensity and effect of long-
term interventions remain unclear .
NONSTEROIDAL ANTI-INFLAMMATORY DRUGS
NSAIDs have been a mainstay treatment in ligament
injuries for many years, especially in the case of acute sports
injuries, but new research has shown that these anti-
inflammatory drugs are only mildly effective in relieving the
symptoms of most muscle, ligament, and tendon injuries and
are potentially deleterious to soft tissue healing [133, 134].
There are valid reasons to expect that NSAIDs might have an
adverse effect on healing, since prostaglandin-induced
inflammation is an early sequel in the cascade of injury-
induced events. This response normally results in the
recruitment of cells into the injured area where they remove
necrotic debris and initiate the healing process. However,
NSAIDs are known to specifically block the cyclooxygenase
enzymes which catalyze the conversion of arachidonic acid
to prostaglandins which would otherwise play a significant
role in ligament healing . Additionally, because of the
analgesic effect of NSAIDs, patients may feel no discomfort
12 The Open Rehabilita tion Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
and ignore early symptoms of ligament injury, which could
cause further damage to the ligament, and thus, delay
One study looked into the use of the NSAID piroxicam in
the Australian military for the treatment of acute ankle
sprains. While the recruits were able to resume training more
rapidly, over the long-term, those in the piroxicam-treated
group experienced an increase in ankle instability, as
evidenced by a positive anterior drawer sign . Multiple
studies have been conducted on the cyclooxygenase-2
(COX-2) inhibitor class of NSAIDs, and researchers have
concluded that the use of these medications inhibits ligament
healing, and thus, leads to impaired mechanical strength
[137-139]. Therefore, NSAIDs are no longer recommended
for chronic soft tissue (ligament) injuries, and their use is
cautioned in athletes who have ligament injuries. In the case
of acute ligament injuries, NSAIDs should be used for the
shortest period of time possible, if used at all [140, 141].
Corticosteroid injections have also been a long-standing
treatment regimen for musculoskeletal disorders, including
ligament injuries. Although steroid injections have been
shown effective in decreasing inflammation and pain in
ligament injuries for up to six to eight weeks, they inhibit the
histological, biochemical, and biomechanical properties of
ligament healing [142, 143]. While the anti-inflammatory
actions of corticosteroids stem from their ability to prevent
lysosomal enzyme release, this also inhibits neutrophils and
other inf lammatory cells from accumulating at the injury
site, as well as disrupts the synthesis of cytokines and other
inflammatory mediators .
Mounting evidence has shown that corticosteroid
injections into injured ligaments have an adverse effect on
healing. For instance, corticosteroid injections into ligaments
and tendons have also been known to inhibit fibroblast
function and thus collagen synthesis [145-147], even to the
extent of causing collagen necrosis at the injection site [148,
149]. Steroid-injected ligaments have been shown to be
smaller in cross sectional area [143, 150, 151] and weaker in
integrity , as manifested by decreases in peak tensile strength
and load (energy) to ligament failure [152, 153]. Given the
inhibitory effects corticosteroid injections have on ligament
healing, many experts now caution against their use for
treating ligament injuries, especially in athletes [154, 155].
DIET AND NUTRITION
As with any health condition or disease, diet and
nutrition have an effect on the body’s homeostasis, including
the ligaments and their potential to heal. Joel Fuhrman, MD
is a board-certified family physician, a NY Times best-
selling author, and nutritional researcher who specializes in
preventing and reversing disease through nutritional and
natural methods. On his blog Preventing and Reversing
Arthritis http://www .drfuhrman.com/disease/arthritis.aspx,
Dr. Furhman discusses a major cu lprit in the dev elopment of
OA—namely, the American diet, stating that it causes poor
circulation to the microscopic blood vessels that carry
oxygen and other nutrients to the joints, doing so by creating
fatty streaks and plaques in the blood vessels as early as the
tenth year of life. These microscopic changes, coupled with
the tendency for red blood cells to adhere to the vessel lining
after a rich fatty meal, impede blood flow and result in
decreased oxygenation of the joints. Since the articulating
bone and surrounding joint cartilage receive their
nourishment and oxygen from both joint capsule fluid and
small blood vessels, they become compromised when the
supply of blood becomes impaired. Therefore, he advises
eating a diet that is low in saturated fat and high in
micronutrients, which may help stave off the occurrence
and/or progression of OA.
Obesity has become a universal problem that spans all
ages. Nutritionists, including the American Dietetic
Association, have attributed this to an unhealthy diet full of
“empty” calories and a lack of physical exercise. Numerous
studies have substantiated an association between obesity
and knee OA. In fact, the evidence is overwhelming—in one
study, nearly twice as many female athletes with knee OA
were obese, compared to a control group; in another, the risk
of knee OA was almost 7 times higher in people whose body
mass index (BMI) was 30 kg/m2 or higher, compared to that
of normal weight controls. From a different prospective, a
loss in body mass of 5.1-kg over a 10-year period was found
to reduce the odds of developing OA by more than 50%.
Studies have also demonstrated that weight loss not only
reduces risk factors for symptomatic knee OA, but also
lowers proinflammatory cytokines and adipokines thought to
play a role in cartilage degradation. A meta-analysis found a
strong association between obesity and OA, leading the
reviewers to conclude that weight loss should be the first-
choice therapy for obese adults with knee OA .
Vitamins and minerals are involved in reactions that help
provide the body with energy, help regulate carbohydrate, fat
and protein metabolism, and promote oxygen transfer and
delivery, as well as tissue repair. In a retrospective case
series of chronic pain patients, Turner et al. reported that
vitamin D inadequacy is associated with medication
refractory musculoskeletal pain and neuromuscular
dysfunction. The overall prevalence of vitamin D inadequacy
was 26%. This was most evident among patients using
opioids, where there was a significant difference between
vitamin D inadequacy and mean morphine equivalent dose
(P=0.001), mean duration of opioid use (P=0.023), worse
physical functioning (P=0.041), and health perception
Although the evidence for the benefits derived is not
conclusive, other dietary supplements are often
recommended for patients with osteoarthritis. For instance,
chondroitin sulfate is known to reduce OA symptoms, and
glucosamine sulfate, to alleviate symptoms of pain related to
the disease, as well as to slow disease progression in patients
knee OA .
The ultimate goal of surgery for ligament injuries,
including partial and total ligament tears and ligament laxity,
is to have minimal complications and retain motion in the
joint while restoring its stability and function . Repair
surgery is intended to restore as much normal anato my as
possible to the injured ligament by either suturing the two
ends of the torn ligament together or by using wire to attach
it back to the bone. Reconstructive surgery is a more
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 13
involved procedure that uses grafts or tendons from the host
or a donor as a means of stabilizing the joint .
However, the use of reconstructive and repair surgery has
become a controversial treatment option in recent years,
because, even after ligaments have been surgically repaired
or reconstructed, they remain weaker than the original
ligaments and are unable to hold the same tensile load. It has
been estimated that only 65% of patients on average return to
the same level of sport activities after ACL reconstruction
. Nevertheless, projections indicate that knee
replacement surgery is expected to see a nearly 7-fold
increase between 2005 and 2030 .
Given this, surgical repair of ligament tears has had a
relatively high degree of success in the past, albeit without
its share of problems. This has become evident from the
results of numerous studies which have investigated the
long-term outcomes of patients who have undergone
reconstruction or revision surgery after sustaining ACL
injury. These studies have employed one or more of the
standardized knee function tests shown in Table 2 to assess
patient outcomes before and after ACL surgery.
In one early study, the results showed that 93% of
athletes who had undergone repair of mid-substance tears
were able to return to their sport an average of two and a half
years later without their knee experiencing signs of giving-
way . However, major registries (refer to Table 1) have
accumulated data over the last two decades that more
accurately reflects the current outcomes of ACL
All subscales of the KOOS scores at one and two-year
follow ups after reconstruction recorded for 2004-2007 by
the Scandinavian registries (Denmark, Norway and Sweden)
improved overall from baseline, with Denmark reporting the
smallest increase (57/61) in the “symptoms” category .
However, data at a 5-year follow up from the Swedish
National Anterior Cruciate Ligament Register indicate that
the only significant improvement for patients who had
concomitant meniscal or chondral injuries at reconstruction
was in the sport/recreation subscale. During the 5-year
period, 9.1% of patients required reconstruction or revision
reconstruction of the index knee . In the Danish ACL
reconstruction registry, the revision rate for ACL
reconstruction after 5 years for was 4.1%, and the rate of re-
revision was higher (5.4%), primarily the first revision was
done using allograft, as opposed to autograft tissue .
According to the NKLR, the revision rate per follow-up year
in Norway was 0.9%. This w as in line with the U.S. revision
rate (1.5%) from Kaiser Permanente’s ACLRR database,
which also reports the crude incidence rate for several
adverse events/complications regarding total knee
replacement for mid-2001 through 2009: revision surgery,
2.0; deep surgical site infection, 0.7; superficial surgical site
infection, 0.3; deep vein thrombosis, 0.4; and pulmonary
embolism, 0.5 .
The Multicenter Orthopaedic Outcomes Network, or
MOON, as it is coined, developed validated patient-reported
outcome instruments for an athletically active population
which can perform multivariable analysis for identifying
prognosis and modifiable predictors for both short-term and
long-term outcomes after an ACL reconstruction. Follow-up
was obtained at 2 years (88%) and at 6 years (84%). The
ability to perform sports function was maintained at 6 years,
but the Marx activity level continued to decline from
baseline. Revision ACLR and use of allograft predicted
worse outcomes according to the IKDC and both KOOS
subscales. Lateral meniscus treatment at baseline was also a
predictor, as was revision reconstruction which gave a lower
activity level score. At 6 years post-reconstruction, patients
were still able to perform sports-related functions and
maintain a high knee-related quality of life similar to what
they could do at their 2-year level, with the exception of their
physical activity level (Marx score), which decreased over
In a paper published the following year, Wright et al,
evaluated patients from the MOON database who had had
revision ACL reconstructions. At 2 years, follow-up, patients
with ACL revisions had a significantly worse outcome
compared with those with primary ACL reconstruction only,
as shown by decreases in median scores for Marx (P=0.03),
for IKDC (P=0.003), and KOOS subscales: Knee Related
Quality of Life (P <0.001) and Sports and Recreation
(P=0.005), and Pain (P=0.002) .
Table 2. Knee Function Measurement Tools
Test Name Outcome Measure
Fairbank Radiological classification of OA
International Knee Documentation Committee (IKDC) Subjective knee evaluation form
Kellgren- Lawrence scale Radiological classification of OA
Knee injury and Osteoarthritis Outcome Score (KOOS) Subjective knee evaluation form
KT-1000™ Arthrometer Evaluates anterior translation (laxity) of affected knee, as compared to normal knee
Lysholm knee score Assesses patient-perceived knee function and level of instability during daily activities
Marx Scale Rates knee activity level
Noyes grading scale Measures cartilage lesions
One-leg-hop test Evaluates patient’s subjective feeling about own knee function
Tegner Scale Grades mean level of sports activities from 0 to 10, with 10 meaning strenuous competitive
14 The Open Rehabilita tion Journal, 2013, Volume 6 Hauser et al.
Another database, the Multicenter ACL Revision Study
(MARS), was specifically developed to allow multivariable
analysis of a revision ACL reconstruction cohort to
determine predictors of clin ical outcomes. For those
requiring revision ACLs, the most frequent mode of failure
was traumatic (32%), the most common type of graft was
autograft (70%), length of time from last reconstruction was
> 2 years, and most frequent concomitant injury was by far
meniscus and/or chondral damage (90%) .
These registry reports are consistent with those in the
literature, which has establish ed that ligaments tend to “fail
over time”, despite healing initially, and thus, become unable
to hold a normal load [37, 164]. Research has shown that a
ligament can fail as early as 3-5 years after surgery. In a
review of the literature, Murray et al.  report that 94%
of patients who had undergone surgery were found to have
instability at a 5-year follow-up and 72% reported they still
had pain, even though 25 of the 30 patients had originally
reported having a good or excellent outcome 2 years after
surgery. The authors also refer to another study of patients
receiving reconstructive surgery after ACL rupture, in which
17% had an overall failure rate (clinical instability or giving-
way) at follow-up, and 42% demonstrated laxity on clinical
Many other studies have reported on the effects of
surgery observed in athletes a few years after ACL tears.
One study evaluating athletes 2-7 years after reconstructive
surgery reported that less than 50% had been able to return
to their preinjury skill level . A similar study evaluating
handball players who had ACL tears found that only 58% of
the players who had had surgery returned to their preinjury
skill or activity level compared with 82% who did not have
Other such studies have estimated that 10% to 30% of
patients who receive ACL surgery have undesirable side
effects or chronic symptoms related to joint stiffness,
tendonitis or synovitis, and experience swelling, pain,
muscle weakness or ‘giving way’ of the joint [37, 160 167].
Aside from instability, stiffness and joint pain, other
complications of surgery include viral transmission of
infection, bleeding, numbness, blood clotting, extensor
mechanism failure, and growth plate injury. Even without
the occurrence of these complications, many months of
rehabilitation are required for optimal recovery  since
the repaired or reconstructed ligament tends to remain
unstable and prone to further injury. The poor wound-
healing response of the ACL, especially after rupture, is well
known, but the reasons for this have not been completely
elucidated . The consequence of such incomplete
healing is degeneration of the joint and eventual
A research study followed female college athletes 12
years after an ACL rupture to assess the course of joint
degeneration after surgery. Of the total, 60% of the athletes
had to undergo ACL reconstructive surgery within 3 years of
the initial injury. Twelve years later, 51% of study
participants showed radiographic knee osteoarthritis in the
injured knee, with only 7% showing it in the uninjured knee
. In a 15-year follow-up study of athletes with ACL
tears, including major meniscal injuries, osteoarthritis was
found in only 11% of nonreconstructed knees compared to
35% of reconstructed knees . Another study reported
that surgery did not reduce the prevalence of osteoarthritis in
a joint, regardless of the ligament injured, nor did surgery
slow the further degeneration of cartilage, often causing it to
accelerate instead [23, 170].
While ACL reconstruction has become standard
treatment for ACL tears, it is not a panacea for returning a
patient’s knee to normal function and does not preclude the
development of OA. Overall, of all people who receive ACL
surgery, only 50% are satisfied with the long-term outcome
. To date, there has been no evidence to demonstrate
that ACL reconstruction or subsequent revision surgery can
prevent OA . In study after study [168, 171-174], the
consensus has been that there is a substantial risk of
progression to OA once an ACL injury has been sustained.
One study did indicate that ACL reconstruction cannot
prevent OA, but may lead to a lower prevalence of its onset
and reported that the rate of osteoarthritis progression
showed more severe changes in non-reconstructed patients
with additional meniscus injury . Another study 
concluded that a concomitant meniscal injury had a higher
risk for OA than ACL injury alone.
In their review of treatment for ACL tears, Delincé and
Ghafil asked, “Could ACL reconstruction prevent
osteoarthritis?” and answered their own question, stating that
“At present we do not have any incontestable argument to
recommend a systematic surgical reconstruction to any
patient who tore his ACL to prevent further meniscus lesions
and subsequent degeneration of the joint.”  In a
separate study by Neuman et al., no knee OA was found at a
15-year follow-up in patients who had been nonsurgically
treated for an ACL injury . Thus, the improvement of
knee stability after ACL injury is a goal not limited to
surgery alone; in many cases it can be realized by more
conservative, and often more cost-effective, means.
Prolotherapy is an injection therapy that has emerged as a
viable treatment option for musculoskeletal and arthritic pain
and is known by various names including proliferative
therapy, regenerative injection therapy and platelet rich
plasma . Prolotherapy involves the injection of small
amounts of various proliferant solutions (such as hypertonic
dextrose, sodium morrhuate, or platelet rich plasma) into
ligaments and tendons at the painful enthesis (attachment site
to bone), as well as at trigger points and adjacent joint
spaces; this procedure induces healing of the injured
Histological studies of ligaments and tendons after
prolotherapy injections have shown an enhanced
inflammatory healing response involving fibroblastic and
capillary proliferation, along with growth factor stimulation
[178-180] (Fig. 8). Growth factors, including basic
Fibroblast Growth Factor and Platelet-derived Growth
Factor, mediate the biological processes necessary for soft
tissue repair in muscles, tendons, and ligaments after acute,
traumatic or overuse injury [169, 181]. Animal research has
also documented that prolotherapy-injected ligaments exhibit
increases in ligament mass, in the extracellular matrix, in
thickness, and in junction strength with bone [182-186].
Ligament Injury and Heali ng The Open Rehabilitation Journal, 2013, Volume 6 15
Prolotherapy injections are given to the articular
ligaments of the entire spine, pelvis and peripheral joints to
tighten unstable joints. Case series have documented the
efficacy of prolotherapy for many ligament injuries: the
sacroiliac joint [187-189], lower back [190, 191], neck [192,
193], shoulder , elbow , knee [196, 197],
temporomandibular joint [198, 199], and other articulations
Fig. (8). Post-Prolotherapy ultrasound image of lateral collateral
ligament. Longitudinal image of LCL demonstrating less
hypoechoic ligament outlined by white arrows. Residual intra-
substance lesion/scar designated by the white sunburst. Compare
with Fig. (5).
CONCLUSION AND FUTURE DIRECTIONS
Ligament injuries are among the most common causes of
musculoskeletal joint pain and disability that physicians
encounter in primary practice. Ligament injuries create
disruptions in the balance between joint mobility and joint
stability, causing abnormal force transmission throughout the
joint which results in damage to other structures in and
around the joint. Osteoarthritis is the long-term consequence
of nonhealed ligament injuries and continues to be the most
common joint disorder in the world. Ligaments heal through
a distinct sequence of cellular events that occur in three
consecutive phases: the acute inflammatory phase, the
proliferative or regenerative phase and the tissue remodeling
phase. Ligament healing is often slow and incomplete, as is
the joint laxity caused by lig ament injury which shows
improvement gradually over a period of six weeks to a year
after injury. However, even at this point, objective
mechanical laxity and subjective joint instability are still
observed in a large percentage of patients.
Numerous strategies have been employed over the years
in an attempt to improve the quality of ligament healing after
injury or surgery. One of the most important advances in the
treatment of ligament injuries has come from the realization
that controlled and early resumption of activity can stimulate
repair and restoration of function, and that treatment of
ligament injuries with prolonged rest may actually delay
recovery and adversely affect the tissue’s ability to repair
itself. Likewise, the histological, biochemical, and
biomechanical properties of ligament healing are inhibited
by the use of steroid injections and NSAIDs, although these
medications have been shown to be effective in decreasing
inflammation and pain of ligament injuries over the short-
term. This has led to caution in their use, particularly in
athletes who have ligament injuries; NSAIDS are no longer
recommended for chronic soft tissue injuries. On the other
hand, regenerative medicine techniques such as prolotherapy
have shown success in several cases series involving
ligament injuries of the spine and peripheral joints, but
additional studies conducted in more controlled settings and
with larger numbers of patients are needed in the future.
Research on ligament healing and its intricate processes
continues. Many new experiments dealing with the biology
and biomechanics of ligaments are providing better insights
into treatments that may aid in the healing of injured
ligaments and improve long-term outcomes. Gene therapy is
one avenue that is being pursued as an aid in the healing and
remodeling of injured ligaments, but requires further
research. There has been speculation that one day it may be
possible to control certain genes coding for specific
mechanisms, such as decreasing decorin gene expression
which would result in larger collagen fibers during the
healing of ligaments [74, 202]. Another area needing further
research is growth factor production. Previous research has
shown that enhancing the proliferation of a growth factor has
positive effects on the healing ligament, but the results
appear to be short lived and quickly diluted. Because
platelets are known to produce autologous growth factors,
platelet rich plasma is a technique being utilized to increase
the number of growth factors that can be introduced into an
injured ligament . Research is also needed to further
examine the relationship between an individual’s growth
factors and the effects of decreasing or increasing their
release to determine which of the growth factors are more
capable of increasing the production and diameter of
collagen fibers, and subsequently, would have a more
positive effect on the healing ligament.
In the past few years, the field of tissue biomechanics has
become more widely known and better understood, which
has led to experimentation with the creation of artificial
connective tissues. Another aspect of this research involves
the design of an ideal scaffold, which would serve as a
foundation for the injured ligament to enhance its ability to
further the healing process. In vivo studies using the small
intestines of animals as a scaffold are being done and have
shown promising effects on enhancing tissue healing
because it acts as a foundation for collagen fibers to align
correctly . Seeding those scaffolds with ligament
fibroblasts is also being pursued as a further approach to
helping ligaments align within the artificial scaffold.
Through further research and improvements made to such
artificial tissues and scaffolding, it is hoped that they will
one day offer biomechanical properties similar to normal,
healthy ligaments and help in reducing the present failure
rate of repaired and reconstructed ligaments.
CONFLICT OF INTEREST
The authors confirm that this article content has no
conflicts of interest.
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Received: September 5, 2012 Revised: December 21, 2012 Accepted: December 23, 2012
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