What Are the Differences Between a Tendon and a Ligament?

Though both integral components of the body’s musculoskeletal system, tendons and ligaments are distinct in their anatomy, physiology, and function. As they affect the body differently, understanding these variances between them is helpful, especially in the case of an injury, as the treatment and healing processes can vary.

In this article, we explore the differences between tendons and ligaments. We discuss their unique characteristics, the consequences of injury to each, and the paths to recovery. Whether you’re an athlete aiming to protect your body or simply curious about human anatomy, this guide will provide insights into these essential connective tissues.

What Is a Tendon?

A tendon is a strong, fibrous connective tissue that attaches muscle to bone. It’s made up mainly of collagen fibers arranged in parallel bundles to give the tendon its unique toughness. Tendons are crucial to our musculoskeletal system, providing tensile strength and flexibility, which allows our body to move. When a muscle contracts, it pulls on the tendon, which, in turn, pulls on the bone, resulting in joint movement.

We can find tendons throughout our bodies, such as the ankles, shoulders, and kneecaps. They’re essential for activities ranging from simple tasks such as walking and holding objects to more complex movements such as running, jumping, and lifting. While tendons are generally durable and resilient, they can be subject to wear and tear over time. This can lead to inflammation of the tendon, causing conditions such as tendonitis or sports-related tendon injuries.

What Is a Ligament?

A ligament is a strong and fibrous connective tissue that connects one bone to another in a joint. Like tendons, ligaments comprise flexible and strong collagen fibers and play a significant role in our musculoskeletal system. The ligament’s primary function is to provide stability and support to the joints and safely limit their range of motion. This stops your body from moving in directions that could cause an injury.

We can find ligaments in joints such as the knee, ankle, and elbow. Despite their toughness, ligament injuries, such as sprains or tears, are relatively common. These injuries often result from sports that involve quick changes in direction, pivoting, jumping, or contact. They can cause joint instability and be very painful. Due to their part in protecting the body from injury, looking after your ligaments is crucial for maintaining joint integrity and overall musculoskeletal well-being.

What’s the Difference Between a Tendon and a Ligament?

Tendons and ligaments are vital connective tissues in the body but have distinct functions and roles. Here are the key differences between tendons and ligaments.

They’re Located in Different Parts of the Body

Tendons and ligaments serve distinct roles and connect different structures in the body. Tendons are located at the ends of muscles, where they attach the muscles to the bones. They’re located near joints, allowing for movement. In contrast, ligaments are located within joints, connecting bones to other bones. They’re situated to provide stability to the joint and limit excessive movement.

They Serve Different Functions

Tendons enable joint movement. When a muscle contracts, it pulls on the attached tendon, which pulls on the bone, creating joint movement. Tendons help us perform physical activities, such as walking, running, and lifting.

Examples of this movement are as follows:

Ligaments, on the other hand, are responsible for stabilizing the joints. They provide strength, support, and help prevent dislocations or injury during physical activities.

Examples of ligament functions are as follows:

They’re Affected by Different Injuries

Tendon injuries often involve conditions such as tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendon, or tendon tears that result from overuse or trauma. Ligament injuries are typically called sprains and can range from mild to severe. Common examples include a sprained ankle or a torn ACL.

Treatment for Tendon vs. Ligament Injuries

As injury to both tendons and ligaments can cause similar symptoms, visiting a doctor for an examination and imaging tests is the best way to diagnose if it’s a ligament or tendon issue. Treatment is very similar for either injury. However, as each type of tear has its own set of symptoms, treatment can vary based on several factors, such as the type and location of the injury and its severity. Both tendon and ligament injuries benefit from rest to allow time to heal or using ice and compression to reduce inflammation and swelling.

Our physicians recommend physical therapy for both injuries to help strengthen and improve joint stability and range of motion in the affected area. As tendon injuries have a risk of becoming separated from the joint, we recommend patients adjust their lifestyle to reduce pressure on the tendon. We may recommend non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs to alleviate pain and inflammation in both cases. Surgery may be necessary in severe cases to repair the tendon or ligament. Unconventional exercises are commonly used for tendon injuries, while emerging treatments, such as platelet-rich plasma or stem cell therapy, are being explored for ligament injuries.

Do You Have a Sore Tendon or Ligament?

Tendons connect muscles to bones and facilitate movement, while ligaments connect bone to bone and provide joint stability. They’re critical for proper musculoskeletal function, and injuries to either can impact movement and be very painful. The exact treatment plan depends on the specific injury, its location, your age, activity level, and overall health. Prompt and appropriate treatment is essential to achieving the best possible outcome for both tendon and ligament injuries. Consult our orthopedic specialists, ideally, one with expertise in sports injuries, such as Dr. Knight, to provide a diagnosis and tailored treatment plan to optimize recovery and restore function.

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Dr. John Knight
Dr. John Knight

Dr. Knight is a renowned hand, wrist and upper extremity surgeon with over 25 years of experience. Dr. Knight is a Board Certified Orthopedic Surgeon and Fellowship trained. Dr Knight has appeared on CNN, The Doctors TV, Good Morning America, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, Forbes, The Huffington Post, Entrepreneur, Oxygen network and more.