A dislocated kneecap is a common injury that normally takes about six weeks to heal. It's often caused by a blow or a sudden change in direction when the leg is planted on the ground, such as during sports or dancing.
About a dislocated kneecap
The kneecap (patella) normally sits over the front of the knee. It glides over a groove in the joint when you bend or straighten your leg.
When the kneecap dislocates, it comes out of this groove. The supporting tissues can be stretched or torn.
Symptoms of a dislocated kneecap
When a kneecap dislocates, it will usually look out of place or at an odd angle.
But in many cases it will pop back into place soon afterwards.
Other symptoms can include:
- a "popping" sensation
- severe knee pain
- being unable to straighten the knee
- sudden swelling of the knee
- being unable to walk
What to do if you dislocate your kneecap
A dislocated kneecap isn't usually serious and will often pop back into place by itself.
But it's still a good idea to get it checked by a health professional:
- if your kneecap has gone back into place by itself – go to your nearest minor injuries unit (MIU) or emergency department
- if your kneecap hasn't gone back into place – call an ambulance: don't try to put it back in place yourself
While you're on your way to hospital or waiting for an ambulance, sit still with your leg in the most comfortable position.
Treatment for a dislocated kneecap
If your kneecap hasn't corrected itself by the time you get to hospital, a doctor will manipulate it back into place.
You may be given medication to make sure you're relaxed and free from pain while this is done.
Once the kneecap is back in place, you may have an X-ray. This is to check the bones are in the right position and there's no other damage.
You'll be sent home with painkillers. Your leg will normally be immobilised in a removable splint to begin with. A few weeks of physiotherapy may be recommended to aid your recovery.
Surgery is usually only necessary if there was a fracture or another associated injury, such as a ligament tear. It may also be done if you have dislocated your kneecap at least once before.
Recovering from a dislocated kneecap
During the first few days, you can help reduce any swelling by keeping your leg elevated when sitting and holding an ice pack to your knee for 10 to 15 minutes every few hours.
If it was recommended, a physiotherapist will teach you some exercises to do at home. The exercises are intended to strengthen the muscles that stabilise your kneecap and improve the movement of your knee.
The splint should only be kept on for comfort and should be removed to do these exercises as soon as you're able to move your leg.
It usually takes about six weeks to fully recover from a dislocated kneecap. Although sometimes it can take a bit longer to return to sports or other strenuous activities.
Ask your GP, consultant or physiotherapist for advice about returning to your normal activities.
If you keep dislocating your kneecap
Most people who dislocate their kneecap won't dislocate it again. But in some people it can keep happening.
This often occurs if the tissues that support the kneecap are weak or loose, such as in people with hypermobile joints, or because the groove in the bone beneath the kneecap is too shallow or uneven.
Regularly doing the exercises your physiotherapist recommends can help strengthen the tissues that hold the kneecap in place. This can help reduce the risk of dislocating it again.
Surgery may occasionally be needed if the kneecap keeps dislocating. This involves operating on the connective tissue (ligament) that helps hold the kneecap in place, repairing and strengthening it.
More useful links
The information on this page has been adapted from original content from the NHS website.
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