How is a Dislocated Kneecap Treated?

M.C. Huguelet

A dislocated kneecap occurs when the kneecap slides out of its proper position within a groove between the thigh and lower leg. This injury, which may be caused by a sudden awkward movement, a blow to the kneecap, or a structural abnormality in the knee area, can be quite painful and may make walking difficult or even impossible. Luckily, a dislocated kneecap can often be fairly easily treated if attended to soon after the injury occurs. Common treatment methods include relocation, immobilization, physical therapy, and, in severe cases, surgery.

A person with a dislocated knee cap.
A person with a dislocated knee cap.

Before treating a dislocated kneecap, a physician will usually run one or more diagnostic tests to confirm that the injured knee has in fact been dislocated and determine whether the bones and ligaments surrounding the kneecap have been damaged by its movement. Commonly used diagnostic tests include magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans and X-rays. Understanding the exact nature of the dislocation helps the physician determine the best course of treatment.

Common treatment for a dislocated knee includes physical therapy to rebuild strength and flexibility in the knee.
Common treatment for a dislocated knee includes physical therapy to rebuild strength and flexibility in the knee.

In many cases, treatment for a dislocated kneecap involves the relocation of the kneecap. During this process, the injured individual may be given anesthetic or a sedative to relax him and limit his ability to sense pain. A physician then simply guides the kneecap back into its normal position.

Following relocation of a dislocated kneecap, the affected knee is often immobilized using a splint or brace for a period of several days or even weeks. Immobilization allows the kneecap and the surrounding bones, muscles, and ligaments to heal and regain strength. It also temporarily prevents further dislocations.

Even after a dislocated kneecap has been relocated and immobilized, it may continue to cause pain and mobility difficulties. This is especially true when the structures surrounding the kneecap have been torn, broken, or otherwise damaged by the kneecapā€™s movement. Should dislocation cause lingering problems, the injured individual may need to complete a course of physical therapy. Typically, physical therapy involves multiple sessions with a therapist, during which the affected knee is stretched and exercised to rebuild strength and flexibility.

Sometimes, a dislocated kneecap causes severe damage to the structures surrounding the kneecap. It may, for instance, cause an attached ligament to rupture or cause a nearby bone to shatter. Certain individuals may also experience annoying repeat dislocations. In such cases, surgery to repair damaged structures or correct structural abnormalities may be necessary. While kneecap surgery can require a significant and painful recovery period, it is often successful in preventing future kneecap dislocations and alleviating symptoms from past ones.

A man with a twisted kneecap.
A man with a twisted kneecap.

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