Curious about the difference between a ligament and a tendon? Think you may have overdone it at the gym?
So much of our biology is a mystery to us. When pain strikes, it’s not always obvious what’s wrong – adding extra anxiety to an already difficult situation.
If you’re currently suffering and suspect you’ve damaged a tendon or a ligament (or are just genuinely curious to learn about anatomy), it’s helpful to know the difference between them.
It could be tendonitis; it could be a sprained ligament. Knowing what’s hurting can help you treat it and get you back on your feet. Here’s how to know if it’s tendon pain or ligament damage.
Tendon vs ligament – differences and definitions
The big difference between tendons and ligaments is their function:
- Tendons attach muscle to bone
- Ligaments attach bone to bone
Every time you flex a muscle, you’re using your tendons. These fibrous connections allow us to move, bend, contract, and flex. They’re a gym-goer’s best friend and the building blocks of our mobility.
Ligaments do a slightly different but equally important job. They are tough tissue that wraps around our bones and cartilage – holding the bones together in a joint.
Your elbows, knees, ankles, and wrists are your hardest-working ligaments, protecting delicate bones from damage and giving us a full range of motion in our joints while providing stability.
Patellar ligament vs patellar tendon
While so far we’ve gone through the differences between tendons and ligaments, there’s actually one instance where they’re actually the same.
Known as either the patellar tendon or the patellar ligament, this important bit of connective tissue attaches the kneecap (the patella) to the shinbone.
On one hand, it’s a ligament because it connects two bones together, but it’s also known as a tendon because it runs through the quad muscle at the front of the thigh.
The patellar tendon is the thing that helps you straighten and bend your leg. It would be impossible to run, jump, or walk without it. It’s also very vulnerable – even small tears in this tendon can be very disabling. And a big tear can leave you completely unable to straighten your knee joint.
Rest, ice, medication, and careful knee exercises are usually the answer when the patellar tendon/ligament is damaged.
Injuries to tendons and ligaments
Damage to tendons and ligaments can be excruciating. If you’re ever experiencing pain after a hard session in the gym, it can really throw off your progress.
Tendonitis is one of the most common injuries for athletes. This is where overused muscles cause the tendons to tear and swell after repeated stress.
As the tendons become more inflamed, they lead to greater pain and irritation, so it’s best to rest the affected muscles completely.
Tendonitis can occur after any repeated movements where the muscle is working harder than it’s capable of. You’re more at risk of the condition if you:
- Perform strenuous workouts multiple times a week
- Work in a job where you are repeatedly lifting heavy things – such as in a warehouse or on an assembly line
- Are an athlete in training
- Are embarking on a new exercise regime after being mostly sedentary
Tendons may suffer from repetitive strain, but ligaments are more commonly damaged by jerky movements or trauma.
Ligament pain is felt around our joints. Remember the last time you jumped and had knee pain for days? That was probably the result of connective ligaments around your knee joint tearing.
This type of injury can happen to any bone on bone connection. Think spraining a wrist or rolling an ankle; any situation where ligaments can become irritated and inflamed.
Damage to tendons and ligaments feels pretty much the same. You’ll notice pain, swelling, and continued soreness as those delicate connections heal.
You’ll also need to take it easy. Ice and/or anti-inflammatory medication can reduce swelling and pain, but the best remedy is rest.
Try not to put any weight or strain on the affected area and be patient – these types of injuries can take weeks, or even months, to fully heal.
Tendons connect muscles to other muscles. Ligaments connect bones and cartilage. While both are vital to our mobility, they absolutely serve different functions and can be damaged by different movements.
Explosive movements or blows tend to be linked with torn ligaments, while tendons are usually injured through constant, repetitive strain.
Fortunately, you can prevent these types of injuries from occurring by paying close attention to how you exercise and move:
- Always warm-up before a workout
- Create a daily (gentle!) stretching routine to help your muscles, tendons, and ligaments become more resilient
- Learn the proper form for any movements you perform, and don’t rush things in the gym
- Always scale up the intensity gradually when you work out, so you don’t push yourself beyond your capabilities.
- Wear the right gear. If you’re playing sports, knee pads and other protective clothing can help. Whatever form your chosen exercise takes, it’s also important to always wear the right shoes. The stable foundation provided by ergonomic footwear will help protect the knees and ankles.
If you do get injured, it’s often recommended to avoid self-diagnosing your injury. If you suspect damage to a tendon or a ligament, it won’t hurt to seek medical attention.
The good news is that while this type of injury is certainly unpleasant, it’s rarely serious. In most cases, the pain and swelling should subside within a few weeks of rest.
In more severe cases, physical therapy and light stretching, under the supervision of a qualified therapist, can help you get back to your best!