What is a knee fracture?

A knee fracture is called a patellar fracture. A patellar fracture is a break in the kneecap (patella). The kneecap is susceptible to fracture if you fall directly on the knee or sustain some other direct trauma to the patella.

Knee fractures are very serious injuries and can make walking and everyday activities extremely difficult.

Causes of a knee fracture

Knee fractures (patellar fractures) are typically caused by direct falls to the knee or sharp blows to the knee. Car accidents are another common cause of knee fractures.

In rare cases, the knee can be fractured due to a sudden contraction of a quadricep where the muscles can pull from the patella.

Risk factors for a knee fracture

  • Osteoarthritis — patients with osteoarthritis are at a higher risk for knee fractures.
  • Age — as the bones age, they become more brittle and are more susceptible to breaking.
  • Sports — participating in high-impact sports such as football, basketball and downhill skiing.
  • Gender — females are more likely to suffer from a knee fracture.
  • Smoking and drinking alcohol — smoking and drinking alcohol impact hormones and bone structure, increasing risk of knee fractures.
  • Previous knee injury — a previous injury or knee fracture doubles the risk of suffering another injury.

Symptoms of a knee fracture

An immediate sign of a knee fracture is a misshapen limb or joint that could be accompanied by a visible bone outside the skin. Other signs of a knee fracture include:
  • Pain, swelling, tenderness, numbness or bruising near the injury
  • Inability to move the impacted area
  • Deformity or instability in the knee, lower leg, ankle or foot

Diagnosis of a knee fracture

Knee fractures are diagnosed in a physical exam and using an x-ray. In a more severe fracture, a CT scan or MRI may be able to give more insight into the extent of the injury. If you think you have fractured your knee, please visit Mercy Health ER right away.

Treatments for a knee fracture

Nonsurgical treatments for a knee fracture include:
  • Rest, ice, compression and elevation in combination with anti-inflammatory medications are the initial therapies to relieve pain associated with knee fractures.
  • Brace, splints or casts — most patients will recover from a knee fracture using braces, splints or casts.
  • Physical therapy or rehabilitation — physical therapy is used to improve knee range of motion, strengthen leg muscles and decrease stiffness.

Surgery is reserved for complicated cases where the break is resistant to healing or when the bones are displaced. If the bones are not close together, they will likely not heal properly. The goal of surgery is to repair the break by using screws, metal pins or plates.

Your physician will work with you to determine the appropriate time for surgery. If the fracture is open, it is important to do it quickly in order to avoid infection.

Recovery from a knee fracture

Recovering from knee fractures is a slow process. During recovery, the knee will have to stay immobilized while in a brace. You will work with your orthopedic physician to determine when you can gradually put weight on the leg or knee. With treatment, a knee fracture will take six to eight weeks to heal.

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