Patellar Tendon Tears in Athletes

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The knee is one of the most complex joints in the body, comprised of muscles, tendons, ligaments and cartilage that work together to provide stability, support and movement. Not surprisingly, the knee is susceptible to injury because of the many roles it plays.

If you are an athlete, particularly when it comes to basketball and volleyball, you rely on the complex components of the knee to aid you in jumping, cutting, and sudden, rapid movement. That is when the patellar tendons serve a vital function.

The bottom of the kneecap, or patella, and the top of shinbone are attached by the patellar tendon. These strong fibrous tissues help the quadriceps muscles quadriceps tendon extend the knee and straighten the leg. When forcefully landing from a jump or when the front of the knee suffers strong impact, the patellar tendons are at a higher risk of rupturing.

What is a Patellar Tendon Tear?

Patellar tendon tears can be partial or complete. Smaller partial tears, which involve the tendon pulling/fraying away from the kneecap while still remaining attached, typically do not require surgery. Depending on the severity, one of our physicians may suggest immobilizing the knee or wearing a brace, combined with rest and physical therapy.

Complete tears are more serious and more painful. If the patellar tendon has separated from the kneecap, it is considered a complete tear and will prevent you from fully extending your knee.

What Causes a Patellar Tendon Tear? 

In active people, patellar tendon tears are commonly caused by an injury like a harsh landing from a jump or impact from a fall. They can also occur if the individual already suffers from tendon weakness, or patellar tendinitis.

What are the Symptoms?

Experiencing a tearing or popping sensation is a common symptom of a patellar tendon tear. After the tear occurs, you may be unable to straighten your knee and have difficulty walking. Pain, swelling, bruising, tenderness and cramping are also common following a tear. Many notice a marking or indentation at the injury site, and may experience kneecap instability.

Treatment Options

As previously mentioned, depending on the damage, partial patellar tendon tears may be able to be treated without surgery. However, those who suffer from complete tears require surgery, preferably as quickly as possible. When the complete tear is treated in a timely manner, the surgeon is able to restore function more effectively and prevent the tendon shortening and scarring.

Most tendon reattachments are done as inpatient procedures, however, some may be done as outpatient procedures. After anesthesia is administered, a common procedure involves the surgeon reattaching the tendon by suturing them through holes drilled in the kneecap, and tying the sutures at the top of the kneecap.

Post-surgery, a combination of knee immobilizer, crutches or walker may be used to prevent you from placing too much weight on the repaired knee. Depending on your rehabilitation process, you may be able to fully support your weight in anywhere from four to six weeks. A physical therapy plan based on your needs and extent of injury will be established after you have reached that four to six week mark.