Ask the Expert: Tendons and Ligaments – are they different?

June 23, 2021 - Defence Stories

Q: Throughout my military career, I have participated in a wide variety of sports and experienced my fair share of injuries. Some of these injuries were the result of overuse and others were caused by trauma. Most of my injuries have involved tendons or ligaments, and I must admit that I really don’t understand the difference between the two. Can you explain? Active Adam

A: Dear Active Adam, Great question. The body has approximately 900 ligaments and 4,000 tendons. Both of these structures are made of tough fibrous tissues and are essential to the proper functioning of our musculoskeletal system. Unfortunately, they both can be injured when we use them at work and at play. They are also more vulnerable to injury when they are not toughened up by living an active lifestyle, particularly as one ages. When ligaments and tendons are injured, people can experience pain, inflammation, weakness, reduced range of motion and in some cases instability.

Ligaments attach bones to bones. Their primary role is help make joints more stable and when they are badly damaged people may feel the affected joint is loose or unstable. Ligament injuries are referred to as “sprains” and are commonly described as being grade one to three. A grade one sprain is a minor injury where some ligament fibres have been damaged but there is no obvious ligament tear. A grade two sprain is a moderate injury where the ligament is partially torn. A grade three sprain is a severe injury where the ligament is completely torn. Regardless of their grade, all ligament sprains can be very painful and disabling.

Tendons attach muscles to bones. They function to transmit the forces generated by muscles to make bones move. They also play an important role in joint stability and helping to absorb the impact loads that are generated by activities such as running and jumping. Tendons can experience a number of different injuries including strains, partial tears, complete tears, tendonitis and tendinosis. These injuries often occur as the result of overuse. They can also result from trauma, such as snapping your Achilles tendon while jumping up to do a layup in basketball.

Unfortunately, ligaments and tendons both have very limited blood supplies, so when they are injured, it can take a long time to recover. The appropriate treatment for these injuries will depend on their severity. Complete tears of ligaments and tendons often require surgical repair to restore normal function and stability. Less severe injuries usually respond to rest, ice, compression, elevation, anti-inflammatories, physiotherapy, casting/bracing, shock wave therapy, corticosteroid injections and time.

Bottom line: The body has a huge number of tendons and ligaments that play a critical role in helping us function well on our journey through life. It is important to know that these tissues have a poor blood supply and so when they are injured, they will heal quite slowly. Seeking the help of a health care professional can speed up your recovery, prevent complications, and help you get back to doing what you love – being active! Exercise is medicine!

Strengthening the Forces Logo

Dr. Darrell Menard OMM MD, Dip Sport Med

Dr. Menard is the Surgeon General’s specialist advisor in sports medicine and has worked extensively with athletes from multiple sports. As part of the Strengthening the Forces team he works on injury prevention and promoting active living.

Strengthening the Forces is CAF/DND’s healthy lifestyle promotion program providing expert information, skills and tools for promoting and improving CAF members’ health and well-being.

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Tendons & Ligaments

Are they different?

Tendons attach muscles to bones

They transmit forces needed by muscles to make bones move. Tendons play an important role in helping absorb impact loads from activities such as running and jumping.

Ligaments attach bones to bones

Their primary role is to help make joints more stable. When ligaments are badly damaged, people may feel that the affected joint is loose or unstable.

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