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Covering sports injuries from the perspective of a certified athletic trainer and backed by analytics.

Understanding Steph Curry’s Grade 1 MCL Sprain

The 2016 NBA postseason took a dramatic turn Sunday evening when Warriors guard Stephen Curry suffered a right knee injury as the first half came to a close. He attempted to return to the start the third quarter but quickly retreated to the locker room before being ruled out for the game with a sprained knee.

The reigning MVP and heartbeat of a record-breaking Warriors team underwent a MRI on the injured joint Monday where it was determined he suffered a Grade 1 MCL sprain.

The injury occurred after Curry appeared to slip on a wet spot left by Houston big man Donatas Motiejunas, who also slipped just seconds before Curry hit the ground. Curry’s left leg extended backward while his right knee bent forward. His right foot appeared to remain planted on the court and the resulting valgus force of the fall overloaded the inside aspect of his knee, the location of the medial collateral ligament (MCL).

The MCL, along with the ACL, PCL, and LCL, serves as a primary stabilizer of the knee. Given its location, the MCL is critical in lateral or side-to-side movement. Damage to the medial meniscus often accompanies a MCL sprain as fibers of the ligament adhere to the fibrocartilage disc. Fortunately Curry appears to have avoided any meniscus involvement.


When a ligament like the MCL is sprained, the injury is often assigned a grade based on the amount of associated damage. A minor or Grade 1 sprain is given when partial or micro tearing of the effected ligaments has occurred. A more moderate Grade 2 sprain is more commonly referred to as a partial tear and is more painful and limiting. Grade 2 injuries are often accompanied by a considerable amount of swelling and require rest and more intensive treatment. A Grade 3 sprain is relatively uncommon in sports but is a devastating injury. Grade 3 injuries result in a loss of function and mechanical stability and often require a long period of inactivity and in some cases surgery.

Fortunately for the Warriors, Curry’s mild MCL sprain can heal without surgical intervention. Instead conservative treatment and modalities will be used to address the associated symptoms and help stimulate the body’s natural healing process. The amount of time needed varies from person to person though the team has already determined he will sit for at least two weeks. When he does return expect Curry to wear a protective brace to help stabilize the area. Lateral movements, particularly on the defensive end, will be his biggest obstacle moving forward.

While Curry recovers, the inevitable questions regarding whether or not he should have been playing or if the ankle injury contributed to this latest injury will be asked. Determining a definitive answer is problematic but there is reason to believe his ankle was a non-factor in the knee injury. To start, Golden State’s medical team is one of the most proactive teams in the league, using various degrees of injury analytics and data to help shape their decisions regarding a player’s availability. Their partnership with Catapult Sports is well documented and was considered a major advantage in last season’s run to the title. It’s hard to imagine a medical team risking the health of the team’s MVP with these valuable tools at their disposal.

Furthermore the injury itself was a bit of a fluke. Even if a limitation at the ankle created a small breakdown in the kinetic chain of his right lower extremity, it seems unlikely that Curry could have avoided slipping in the wet spot created by Motiejunas. Additionally, the side of the ankle that was involved in the fall was the side opposite Curry’s lateral ankle sprain.

The estimated recovery window guarantees Curry will miss a part of the second round but how many games that will be remains unknown. During the 2015-16 regular season at least 11 MCL sprains were publicly diagnosed. The list includes several notable point guards including Washington’s John Wall and Dallas’ Deron Williams. Both players sustained low-grade MCL sprains and missed minimal time. Williams sat out just one game while Wall played through the injury without missing any action. However these two appear to be exceptions as the average missed time for the other low-grade sprains was roughly 15 days. The numbers are in line with Golden State’s initial estimated timeline of two weeks.

Closing out the series against the Rockets becomes top priority. Any additional recovery time the team can buy themselves and Curry between now and Game 1 of the second round of the postseason is a much-needed luxury. Furthermore the Warriors will hope the Trail Blazers can extend their matchup with the Clippers to further delay the start of the next round.

While the Warriors may not be “the most healthy team” in league history as LeBron James suggested in November, they did catch a major break Sunday. By avoiding a catastrophic injury, it seems likely that Curry will be able to rejoin his Golden State teammates at some point this postseason and help them cap off a record breaking season with their second consecutive NBA title.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Steph Curry’s Grade 1 MCL Sprain”
  1. MJ June 10, 2016 on 3:33 am

    How did he sprain his MCL when the mechanism of injury was application of a varus force to the knee? The MCL is stretched/sprained when a valgus force is applied to the knee. A blow to the outside of the knee stresses the MCL. It was the inside of his knee that hit the floor…

  2. […] The diagnosis from Golden State provides great insight to the injury including the ligament involved and the severity of the damage. The MCL, along with the lateral collateral ligament (LCL) and cruciate ligaments (ACL and PCL), stabilizes the knee. The MCL is specifically responsible for supporting the knee in lateral or side-to-side movements. Warriors fans are far too familiar with MCL injuries as this is the exact ligament Steph Curry sprained during last year’s playoff run. […]

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