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A ligament rupture is a major tear in a soft band of tissue that connects bones. Most ruptures are caused by forceful twisting motions or sudden overstretching of a joint, but a severe cut or direct trauma to a ligament near the skin can also cause a tear. Most body ligaments are very hardy, and even serious injuries do not always cause ruptures. It is essential, however, to visit a doctor or an emergency room after a major accident to determine the severity of tissue damage and receive the appropriate treatment.
There are hundreds of ligaments in the body, and most are very well protected by bones and layers of fat, muscle, and cartilage. The most common sites for ligament rupture are the knees and ankles, since they are relatively unshielded and the most prone to jarring body movements. A person can also suffer a ligament rupture in his or her wrist, elbow, shoulder, or neck. Sports-related injuries are the leading cause of tears, but falls, car crashes, and industrial accidents can also cause serious ligament damage.
When a person suffers a ligament rupture, pain is immediately noticeable and often excruciating. A distinct popping or tearing sound may be heard as a ligament is torn from its bone. The injured joint tends to swell and turn red within a few minutes, and it may be impossible to bend or straighten it. Swelling can persist for days and the overlying skin usually bruises and discolors over time. When signs of a potential ligament rupture are present, a person should keep the joint immobilized and avoid bearing weight on it until he or she can make it to the hospital.
In the emergency room, nurses and doctors can provide pain medication and prepare the injured body part for radiographic studies. X-rays, computerized tomography screens, and magnetic resonance imaging scans are taken to identify the exact location and severity of a rupture. If the ligament is only slightly torn or strained, the physician may simply advise him or her to rest for about a month, ice the joint, and take painkillers. Major ligament ruptures are unlikely to heal on their own, and surgery is almost always necessary.
When a patient needs to undergo surgery, he or she is usually admitted into the hospital and given a large dose of anesthesia. An orthopedic surgeon can suture the damaged ligament and determine whether or not it can be reattached with metal screws and hinges. An unsalvageable ligament is often replaced with a donor from a cadaver. If nearby cartilage tissue, tendons, or bones also damaged, additional surgeries may be needed. Following surgery, several months of rest and guided physical therapy help most people experience near full recoveries.