October 2, 2019

What are patellar fractures (kneecap fractures)?


The kneecap (or patella) is the bone located at the top of your knee, at the intersection of the thighbone and shinbone. The kneecap serves to protect your knee joint and joins muscles from the thigh to the lower leg.  

A kneecap fracture, or a patellar fracture, is most likely to occur if your knee absorbs a fall or when it is forcibly hit. This can happen during a car accident if the knee hits the dashboard. 

How can you tell if you have a broken knee cap? 

If you fracture your kneecap, it will be challenging or potentially impossible to straighten your knee or walk. Other symptoms include: 

  • Pain and swelling of the knee 
  • Bruising 
  • Unable to maintain a straight leg 

What is the fastest way to heal a broken knee? 

Less severe breaks can be healed by casts or splints. It is more common for the kneecap to be displaced, resulting in a complex fracture that requires surgery.  

Types of kneecap fractures 

  • Stable fracture: The kneecap is not displaced. In this case, you may not need surgery. 
  • Displaced fracture: The break doesn’t line up properly. This usually requires surgery to rejoin the bone. 
  • Comminuted fracture: The bone breaks in at least three places. This fracture could be stable or unstable. 
  • Open fracture: The skin is broken by either the bone or the injury goes through to the bone. Infection is more likely and urgent medical treatment is required. 

A medical examination is required for any treatment of a broken kneecap. X-rays help determine the kind of fracture. If the fracture is stable, a doctor will be needed to apply a cast or splint to immobilize the knee, allowing the kneecap to heal. A doctor will determine whether or not the knee can bear weight. 

Does a fractured patella require surgery? 

If the kneecap is displaced, surgery is likely necessary. Open fractures typically require immediate surgery. There are several types of surgery: 

  1. Transverse fracture: If the fracture is centrally located on the kneecap, surgery using a tension band or other implants to join two pieces of bone together is the usual course. 
  1. Comminuted fracture: If the fracture is on the top or bottom of the kneecap, usually broken in many pieces, the surgeon will remove the bone fragments and reattach the tendon to the bone.  

How long does it take to recover from a fractured patella? 

If your knee was immobilized, physical therapy may help get the knee back to normal by regaining strength and getting rid of stiffness.  

Pain lasts anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks. Rest, ice, compression and elevation can help with the pain, as can over-the-counter pain relievers. A doctor may determine prescription pain medication is needed for a short duration if the pain is more intense. Opioid use should be limited to avoid dependency

Specific recovery time is dependent on the severity of the injury, time for physical therapy, and whether or not surgery was required. 

Learn more about  knee pain treated at OrthoIndy

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Julia Steele

By Julia Steele

Julia was the 2019 summer marketing intern at OrthoIndy. Julia is working on a bachelor’s degree in public relations, a minor in communication studies, and a concentration in media analytics at Ball State University. Julia will graduate May 2020.

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