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Patellar Tendon Tear: Symptoms, Treatment & Rehabilitation

Instructor: Dan Washmuth

Dan has taught college Nutrition, Anatomy, Physiology, and Sports Nutrition courses and has a master's degree in Dietetics & Nutrition.

The patellar tendon attaches the patella to the shinbone in the lower leg. In this lesson, learn about the symptoms, treatments, and rehabilitation for tears to the patellar tendon.

Patellar Tendon Tear

Lindsay is a high school basketball player whose team makes it to the state championship game. With five seconds left in the game, a player from the opposing team shoots the ball, but luckily (for Lindsay's team) the ball bounces off the rim. Lindsay jumps up for the rebound, grabs the ball, and then lands awkwardly on her right leg, causing her knee to buckle.

Time then runs out and Lindsay's team wins the state championship. However, Lindsay's right knee is in a lot of pain, and she can barely walk off the court. Her parents notice her limping and decide to take her to the emergency room to have her knee checked out.

At the hospital, the doctors run several tests on Lindsay's knee to determine if there is any serious damage to the joint. After evaluating the test results, one of the doctors tells Lindsay and her parents that she has torn her patellar tendon.

The knee joint is made up by the lower part of the femur (thighbone) and the upper part of the tibia (shinbone) coming together. The patella (kneecap) is a small, round bone that moves along the front of the knee joint and is connected to the tibia by a fibrous tissue called the patellar tendon.

The patellar tendon attaches the patella to the tibia.
patellar tendon

Patellar tendon tears occur when a lot of force is applied to this tendon, such as when a person falls from a high place or jumps and lands awkwardly on the leg. Tears to the patellar tendon can be partial or complete tears. Partial tears occur when only a portion of the tendon is injured but the tissue is still in one piece, while complete tears occur when the tendon is torn all the way through.

Patellar Tendon Tear: Symptoms

The most common symptom of patellar tendon tears is pain, which will usually increase anytime the knee joint is moved, such as when a person stands up or walks. Other symptoms of this type of injury include:

  • Swelling
  • Bruising
  • Stiffness
  • Weakness

Patellar Tendon Tear: Treatment

Treatment for patellar tendon tears depends on several factors, including the severity of the tear, health status of the patient, and the patient's activity level. Minor partial tears are usually treated conservatively and involves wearing a knee brace to prevent the knee joint from bending and moving. Keeping the knee joint immobilized will prevent any further irritation or damage to the patellar tendon, which will improve the healing process. This knee brace is usually worn for about 3-6 weeks.

Treatment for minor patellar tendon tears will often include wearing a knee brace to help immobilize the knee.
knee brace

More severe patellar tendon tears often require surgical repair. During the surgery, the patellar tendon will be reattached to the patella by sewing the tendon and patella together. Sometimes, metal pins and screws are used to help secure the tendon to the patella.

Patellar Tendon Tear: Rehabilitation

Both surgical and non-surgical treatments of patellar tendon tears will usually require rehabilitation. Rehab includes physical therapy, which involves a series of exercises and stretches designed to increase the strength and range of motion in the knee joint. Examples of exercises include:

  • Knee extension: Sit at the edge of a table or chair with the knees bent at a 90-degree angle and the feet hanging down. Straighten the leg and pause at the top, then slowly bring the foot back down.
  • Box step-ups: Stand in front of a short box and step onto the box with the injured leg, then step the other leg onto the box so you are now standing atop the box. Step off the box by first stepping down with the uninjured leg, followed by the injured leg.

As the muscles around the knee get stronger during rehabilitation, the exercises may be made more challenging by adding more resistance using various machines and weights.

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