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What Is a Knee Fracture?

A diagram of the knee, including ligaments.
Crutches may be needed after a knee fracture.
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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Shereen Skola
  • Last Modified Date: 13 November 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
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A knee fracture refers to a break in either the kneecap or one of the bones it articulates with to form the knee joint. Fractures may range in severity from hairline cracks in the bone to injuries that break the bone into multiple pieces across the joint. The most common cause of this orthopedic injury is a sharp blow to the knee, as may be incurred in sports, a heavy fall, or a car accident. Treatment options can depend on the nature of the injury, the patient’s level of health, and a doctor’s preferences.

Patients with knee fractures may notice symptoms like a sharp, biting pain in connection with an injury, followed by swelling and limited mobility in the knee. Some fractures are open, in which case part of the knee is exposed and it may be possible to see the injured or displaced bone. Measures like icing, antiinflammatory medications, and bracing do not contribute to an improvement, indicating that the injury is more than a simple strain. Medical imaging can identify a knee fracture and provide information about its nature.

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Conservative treatments start with casting and splinting. The patient needs to keep weight off the involved limb to give it a chance to heal, which may require using crutches or a cane. Periodic assessments can confirm that the bone is knitting and appears to be staying in place. As the patient starts to recover from the knee fracture, gentle physical therapy can rebuild strength and flexibility around the joint. This is important, as it will stabilize the injured knee over time.

A severe knee fracture may require surgical treatment. Surgeons can create an incision to clean out the joint, reposition the bone, and pin it in place. The nature of the surgery can depend on the type of fracture, but could involve plates, wires, or pins. A cast or brace may be used to stabilize the joint as the patient recovers, and similar directions about keeping weight off the leg may be included in the treatment plan to reduce strain on the knee.

In the long term, a knee fracture can be a cause for concern because it could contribute to arthritis. People with a history of fractures are at increased risk of bone problems later in life. They may need medication, physical therapy, and other treatments to address this. Athletes with injured knees who want to continue playing could require more aggressive therapies, like knee replacements for joints too badly damaged to support aggressive physical activity.

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