Ligament Pain vs. Tendon Pain: How to Tell the Difference

The terms ligament and tendon are often used interchangeably. The only similarity between the two, however, is that they are both made of fibrous connective tissue. Ligaments are very different from tendons. They are criss-cross bands that connect one bone to another to help stabilize and balance the joints. For example, the anterior cruciate ligament or ACL is a popular ligament that athletes often injured. The ACL serves to connect the thigh bone to the shinbone to keep the knee joints balanced. The tendon is located at the distal end of the muscle and connects the muscles to the bone. The classic example of a tendon is the Achilles, which is the largest tendon in the body and connects the calf muscles to the heel bone. Another tendon is the rotator cuff, which helps your shoulders rotate and abduct to reach for something.

If you are interested in hearing more about the ligament and tendon, then keep reading. We have an ample amount of information for you to dive right into.

What is a Ligament?

Ligaments are elastic tissues located around your joints. Their primary purpose is to attach one bone to another to provide support and stability. You have ligaments all over your joints, and tearing or stretching them can result in instability.

Common Lower Body Ligaments

Here are the four common ligaments that located within your joints:

Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL)

The ACL is located in the front of your knee. It is responsible for the rotation and forward movement of the shinbone.

Posterior cruciate ligament

The PCL is located in the back of your knee, and it controls the backward movement of your shin bone.

Medial cruciate ligament

The MCL provides stability for your knee.

Lateral collateral ligament

The LCL is on the exterior part of the knee, and it keeps the outer parts stable and balanced.

Common Upper Body Ligaments

Here are the four common ligaments that located within your hands:

Collateral ligaments

Collateral ligaments are located on either side of your finger and thumb joints. They are responsible for preventing the sideways movement of your joints.

Volar plate

The volar place is a ligament connecting the proximal phalanx to the middle phalanx on the palm side of the joint. 

Radial and ulnar collateral ligaments

The radial and ulnar collateral ligaments are a pair of ligaments that are responsible for binding the wrist with the bones. They provide stability.

Volar radiocarpal ligaments

The volar radiocarpal ligaments are a complex of web ligaments that are responsible for supporting your wrist palm.

Dorsal radiocarpal ligaments

The dorsal radiocarpal ligaments support the backside of your wrist.

Ulnocarpal and radioulnar ligaments

The ulnocarpal and radioulnar ligaments are two sets of ligaments that are responsible for providing support to your wrist.

Common Ligament Injuries

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Athletes, like basketball players, often injure the anterior cruciate ligament or ACL. They damage this ligament by planting their feet in one direction, and then twisting their knees to the other, therefore tearing and straining their ACL. When this happens, the knee joints will begin to swell up, and you will experience extreme pain when you try to extend the knee. When the patient is brought in to the emergency room, the doctor will perform a Lachman test or in anterior drawer test. These tests are where they gently pull the knee forward to observe the laxity of the knee. When doctors perform a joint aspiration, they will see blood within the joints, which results in painful swelling. After that, the healthcare provider will initiate an MRI to observe the torn ligaments. Once all the tests are completed, then surgery is required to repair the ACL.

What is a Tendon?

The tendons are robust and flexible bands of fibrous tissue. They help attach deep muscle to the bone to keep your body structure balance and stable.  They are a group of fibers that are tightly packed to become collagen. They are packed in a parallel pattern that creates a strong and flexible structure. The strength of the tendon is responsible for resisting the force of any heavy loads or weight. When a muscle contracts, it pulls the bone to result in movement. The structure that permits this type of force or pressure during muscle contraction is the tendon. There are approximately 4000 tendons in your body. Unfortunately, there are times that the tendons could get torn, strained, or inflamed.

Common Tendon Injuries

Image of man playing tennis.

Whenever you overstretch, overuse, or tear your tenant, you will experience extreme pain during movement. Here are some common tendon injuries to keep in mind.

Achilles tear

The Achilles tendon is attached to your calf muscle of your heel bone. Sometimes, if we walk, stand, or run too much, we can overstretch the tendon and tear it partially or completely. When that happens, you will witness a popping sound and sharp pain in the back of your ankle.

Rotator cuff tear

The rotator cuff tendon connects the muscles to the shoulder joint. This tendon is responsible for the movement that enables you to reach the top shelf. However, constant movement, lifting, sports can lead to inflammation, tears, and injury. When that happens, you will feel extreme pain when you are trying to reach for something above your head.

Tennis elbow

If you are a tennis player, then you have probably heard about tennis elbow. Tennis elbow is an inflammation of the tendon that connects your forearm muscles to the elbow. When you are constantly holding a racket to swing the ball, you can easily injure the lateral part of the epicondyles, which can lead to inflammation of that region. It is important to note, however, that the term “tennis elbow” has become a generic term for this type of injury. As a matter of fact, golfers, baseball players, other athletes and even musicians can experience this type of injury as well.

Related: Treating Golfer's Elbow Pain With The Abacus®

How Can You Tell The Difference Between the Two?

The major difference between tendons and ligaments lies in their structural components and their functionalities. The tendons help support and attach the joints between muscles and bones. The ligaments stabilize the joints between the bones. Tendons are robust, non-flexible, and strong, but ligaments are elastic, flexible, and delicate. Both of these components make up your musculoskeletal system. They play a central role in stabilizing your joints and bones to provide efficient movements for your body. Tendons are fibers compacted in parallel bundles. Ligaments are fibers that are compact in a certain way but not arranged in a parallel bundle like the tendon. Tendons contain fibroblasts arranged in a continuous manner, but ligaments are arranged in a  more scattered method. The tendons are made of white fibrous tissue, whereas the ligaments contain yellow fibrous tissue. Tendons can attach muscles to any location of the bone, but the ligaments mainly connect bone to bone within the joints.

How to Treat Ligament and Tendon Injuries

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If you have experienced an injury in your ligament or tendon, then the RICE and medication mnemonic can most definitely help you.

Related: Healthy Hands and Arms Part 1: Importance of Self-Care with The Abacus®

Rest

It’s essential to rest and immobilize your joints so it can heal quickly. That means you may have to wear crutches or braces.

Ice

Ice helps to reduce inflammation and pain. That is why it is recommended to wrap ice in a towel after an injury. It is important to protect the skin and ice the entire area for about 15 to 20 minutes.

Compression

Compression helps reduce swelling, so it’s essential to wear a compression bandage that will fit comfortably and safely.

Elevation

It’s vital to keep your injured body parts higher than your heart to promote healing and decrease swelling.

Medication

Pain medications, like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, can help reduce the swelling or inflammatory process to alleviate pain.

The Gelliflex® Abacus®

Gelliflex Abacus

We greatly depend on the intricate architecture of our muscles, tendons, joints, ligaments, nerves, and bones. The repetitive nature of everyday life often leads to repeated movement patterns – employing the same hand muscles, nerves, tendons, and ligaments again and again.

The Abacus® is a self-care massage therapy device that uses rubbery gel balls of different firmness levels. Easily position the patented frame in the spot you want. Then, use our self-care device to massage your fingers, hands, wrists, and forearms to help address ligament and tendon related pain.

Here are some hand exercises you can try to reduce pain instantly.

Related: Healthy Hands and Arms Part 1: Importance of Self-Care with The Abacus® and Healthy Hands and Arms Part 2: Benefits of Using The Abacus.

Conclusion

If you ever experience any pain or swelling that is extremely unbearable in any joint, it’s imperative to see a doctor immediately. The doctor will conduct a series of physical examinations and imaging to see if this is a ligament or tendon tear. After that, the healthcare provider will have to decide whether or not you will need surgery. Sometimes a ligament or tendon tear is so severe, to the point where you require a surgical repair. There are also times, however, that it’s not that extreme and that supportive therapy like rest, ice, compression, leg elevation, and pain killers can help do the job. Unfortunately, an untrained eye will not be able to tell the severity of the matter. That is why it’s critical to seek a physician, in case the situation requires any medical procedure.

Related: Hand Compression On The Abacus®