What is the difference between a tendon and a ligament?

They both make up part of the musculoskeletal system; both are made of collagen fibres, known as fibrous connective tissue; and both play vital role within one’s body.

Sunday, September 4, 2016

A simplistic explanation between them is: ligaments connect bones to bones, whereas tendons connect muscle to bones.

Whilst both ligaments and tendons are made of strong fibres, excessive pressure or force can cause serious injury.

The table below summarises this:

ConnectionsConnect bones to bonesConnect bones to muscles
ClassificationsClassified into three categories: peritoneal ligaments (which form the abdominal cavity lining), articular ligaments (which connect bone-bone) and fetal remnant ligaments (which are present from the time of being a fetus, eventually developing into other ligament tissue).Tendons have no further classification.
InjuriesTorn ligaments and sprainsTendinitis, avulsion and tenosynovitis

Difference in functions


The main function of a tendon is to connect muscle to bone, which essentially allows us to move. Tendons are the fibres that make this connection.


The main function of our ligaments is to connect bone to bone at the joints, which helps with stabilization of the joints and of the body. You can gradually train their ligaments to stretch and become more flexible, such as when a gymnast learns to do the splits, but overexertion can lead to serious injury. You will have heard the term ‘double jointed’. Individuals who are said to be ‘double jointed’ actually just have extremely flexible ligaments.

Difference in injuries

Ligament Injuries

  • Causes

    Strains or sudden forces, causing them to rupture, can cause injury to your ligament. Stretching ligament past a certain point can also cause an irreversible change to the structure.

  • Symptoms

    When you damage ligaments, you will experience some degree of pain at the affected area. The amount of pain depends on the severity of the injury. There will be inflammation around the area. A ligament that is prone to injury is the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) that resides within the knee. Many athletes injure this ligament during vigorous activity. With this injury, their leg may ‘give-way’, along with pain and inflammation.

  • Treatments

    Knowing the difference between ligament and tendon is important to determine what treatment is needed. If you suspect that you may have injured your ligament, then it would be most advisable to pay a visit to a physiotherapist to assess what has occurred and attain proper treatment. In most cases, injuries such as these can be effectively treated with the use of supports and braces. In more serious cases, surgery may be required to correct the problem. Deep tissue massage therapy around the area of the ligament damage is very effective at facilitating repair and recovery.

Tendon Injuries

  • Causes

    Much like ligaments, excessive force or pressure can cause injury to tendons. A tendon prone to injury is the Achilles tendon which connects the heel to the lower leg muscle. Injury to this tendon can be caused by over-staining or the use of improper footwear during exercise or vigorous activity.

  • Symptoms

    As with injuries to ligaments, an injury to the tendon can cause pain and inflammation, as well as stiffness. The extent of the symptoms depends greatly on the severity of the injury. If a ligament is slightly torn, you may experience slight pain and inflammation and the injury should soon heal. If the tendon was to completely snap, then the pain experienced would be far more severe, leading to impaired movements and possibly permanent damage.

  • Treatments

    If you believe you have injured your tendon, the best action is applying ice to the affected area to help reduce inflammation. The use of a brace or support would also be advisable to provide extra support to the injured tendon. To minimise injuries to a Achilles tendon, ensure proper footwear when exercising or performing vigorous activity. A health care professional will help you ascertain exactly what has been injured and what treatment would be most advisable via the use of an X-ray or MRI.


Due to the similarity between ligaments and tendons, it can be extremely difficult to differentiate between an injury to a ligament and to a tendon. In many cases, a MRI will be conducted to establish whether you have injured your ligament or your tendon. Seeing a Physiotherapist/ Massage Therapist as soon as you suspect an injury is important to prevent any further damage.