Broken Kneecap: Teen Version

What is a broken kneecap?

A broken kneecap is a break (fracture) in the kneecap (patella). The medical term is a patellar fracture. There are different kinds of patellar fractures:

  • Non-displaced: the broken pieces of bone remain properly aligned
  • Displaced: the broken pieces of bone are not properly aligned
  • Comminuted: there are more than 2 pieces of bone at the fracture
  • Avulsed: the patellar tendon pulled away the bottom part of the kneecap

How does it occur?

A broken kneecap occurs from a direct injury to your kneecap. This usually happens from falling onto your knee or by being hit by an object. An avulsion fracture of the kneecap can occur from jumping or running.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms include pain, tenderness, swelling, and trouble walking or straightening your leg. You may hear a popping or snapping sound at the time of the injury.

How is it diagnosed?

Your provider will review your symptoms, ask how the injury occurred and examine you. He or she will order X-rays.

How is it treated?

To treat this condition:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables, wrapped in a cloth on the area every 3 to 4 hours, for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Raise the knee on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take an anti-inflammatory such as ibuprofen, or other medicine as directed by your provider. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs) may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Read the label and take as directed. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take for more than 10 days.

You will be placed in a brace, a knee immobilizer or a cast to prevent your knee from moving. You will not be able to move your knee for 6 to 8 weeks. Some broken kneecaps need surgery.

Your provider will do follow-up X-rays to make sure your fracture has healed properly. You will begin rehabilitation exercises when the broken kneecap has healed. Follow your provider’s instructions for doing exercises to help you recover.

How long will the effects last?

The effects of a broken kneecap may last several months. It may take 6 to 8 weeks for the knee to heal. You will then need to do rehabilitation exercises for several weeks. Sometimes knee pain can come back after your fracture has healed.

When can I return to my normal activities?

Everyone recovers from an injury at a different rate. Return to your activities depends on how soon your knee recovers, not by how many days or weeks it has been since your injury has occurred. In general, the longer you have symptoms before you start treatment, the longer it will take to get better. The goal of rehabilitation is to return you to your normal activities as soon as is safely possible. If you return too soon you may worsen your injury.

You may safely return to your normal activities when, starting from the top of the list and progressing to the end, each of the following is true:

  • Your injured knee can be fully straightened and bent without pain.
  • Your knee and leg have regained normal strength compared to the uninjured knee and leg.
  • You are able to walk, bend, and squat without pain.

What can I do to prevent a broken kneecap?

Most broken kneecaps are caused by accidents that cannot be prevented. If you are in a sport that has knee protection, be sure that your equipment fits properly.

Written by Pierre Rouzier, MD.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2011-02-08
Last reviewed: 2010-06-21
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
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