I was trying to stop my toddler from running about the parking lot while coaxing my slightly lame dog into the back of the minivan. In frustration, I bent forward, wrapped my arms around the dog’s middle and lifted him into the back of the vehicle. I felt a funny twinge in your back but nothing seems to come of it – until later. Stiffness and pain began in my low back and radiated down into my butt. I had sprained my ilio-lumbar ligament (it is right at the base of the spine and goes from the ilium to the 5th lumbar vertebrae). It was a mild injury, a moderate grade one. The grading for sprains is similar to strains, which were roughly outlined in the my muscle strains post.
As with all the other healing processes we have looked at there will be the clearing out of damage and the repairing of the tissue. In a ligament we see scar tissue fill in the ruptured area, restoring the continuity of the ligament. The differences comes from the fact that this is the first avascular, poorly innervated structure we will be looking at.
First, let’s look at what a ligament is and what it is supposed to do. Ligaments are sheets of tightly packed, closely aligned collagen cells. Structures with little elasticity or extensibility, they are the brakes on the engine of muscular motion.
Without direct circulation, ligaments will be slower to send out the chemicals that signal the need for healing. The exchange of healing materials for waste products will be slow and inefficient. This slow fluid exchange will create and prolong irritation and inflammation. The lack of innervation will further slow healing. The body’s ability to know when it is being re-injured is be limited. Most of the pain will come when surrounding tissues become over-taxed, irritated and inflamed. The ankle and low back, two of the most frequently sprained regions, also have the highest rates of re-injury and chronic acute conditions (basically when the area is so regularly being injured it never truly heals and is always painful).
How long is slow? A year. It takes a year for a ligament to fully restore itself. If there is no intervention you will be lucky to get 50% functional integrity at the injury site.
For the first three months you are especially vulnerable to re-damaging the healing ligament. After three months most of the basic repair is done and the new scar is in place. We are entering that retraining period I talked about in the muscle strains blog. This is one of the most tricky times, you need to be active, you are generally pain free, but your ligament is just not capable of what it once was. Directional stress tells scar tissue fibres what direction they need to line up and be strong in. To be functional, ligaments need proper structure, something that can only be achieved through safe movement. By six months or so you might be okay in most activity but be aware that you are still at risk. The wrong move at the wrong time can spell a reversal back to the beginning.
How much of a difference can proper care make? Immensely, think 98% integrity vs the aforementioned 50%. What is proper care? In
the early stages RICE is the answer. If an activity brings on pain, stop it. Get help or modify for safety activities you need to do. Once you are moving without pain through normal activity, return to more vigorous pursuits. If the activity creates similar risks to the injury, tape the injured area. Tape creates some small physical stability, and, more importantly, it brings your brain’s attention to the area.
The other aspect of proper care is some professional assistance. Help to keep compensating structures healthy and ensure optimal circulation using massage therapy, physiotherapy, or acupuncture. The first two, along with a kinesiologist can help with rehabilitation exercises. The kinesiologist can help with bad movement patterns too, as can Alexander technique instructors or Feldenkrais practitioners. You do not have to use the whole spectrum of care, but think about what you need help with and what you have to invest in your health and match that to the practitioner best suited to assist you.
Finally – be patient. This is a long haul situation, if you try to shortcut it you will make it worse.