Do You Have An Unstable Kneecap?

We depend on our knees to move easily. An unstable kneecap inhibits smooth movement and can lead to chronic problems. We explain the symptoms that signal this injury.

Every time we rise from a seated position, take a stroll, or kneel to tend a garden, we are relying on the stability of our knees. The kneecap, or patella, is critical to stability in the knee joint. The kneecap is a small bone located in the front of the knee joint where the thighbone and shinbone meet. It acts as a shield for the joint, and connects the muscles in the front of your upper leg to your shinbone. The underside of the kneecap is covered with slippery hyaline cartilage that allows the bones in the joint to glide smoothly as your leg moves.

Because the kneecap connects thigh muscles to the bone in your lower leg, bending and straightening your leg causes the kneecap to be pulled up or down—but it is held in place by a groove in the thighbone. However, if the groove is uneven or too shallow, the kneecap may slide out of place causing partial or complete dislocation. A blow to the kneecap could also pop it out of position in the joint.

The symptoms that signal a partial or complete kneecap dislocation include the following:

  • A sense that the knee is buckling and can no longer support your weight.
  • The kneecap slips off to the side of the joint and no longer feels as though it is in the proper position.
  • When you bend or straighten your leg, there’s a catching sensation in the knee joint.
  • You have pain in the front of your knee that increases with activity.
  • You feel knee pain while sitting.
  • You experience stiffness or swelling in the knee.
  • When you move your knee, it makes creaking or cracking sounds.

If you experience these symptoms, consult your orthopedic doctor for an examination and diagnosis. Dislocation can damage the underside of the kneecap and the bones in the joint; in addition to being painful, this injury can lead to arthritis.

The first step in treating a dislocated kneecap is to return it to its proper position through a process called reduction. Sometimes, reduction happens spontaneously. Other times, your physician may need to gently push the kneecap back into alignment. Exercises and bracing can strengthen the muscles that hold the kneecap in place. If the instability becomes chronic, you and your doctor may consider surgery to correct the problem. With prompt treatment, you should be able to return to your regular activities within one to three months of diagnosis and treatment.


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