Why is My Knee Popping Out of Place?

In the world of orthopedic injuries, knee dislocations can be particularly distressing, causing pain, instability, and hindering daily activities. This article will discuss the intricacies of knee dislocations, exploring what they are, their common causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment options. 

Whether you’ve experienced a knee dislocation firsthand or are seeking information for preventive measures, reach out to Orthopedic Specialists & Sports Medicine, a trusted provider with locations in Granville and Coshocton, OH. Schedule an appointment with our specialists today!

What is Patellar Instability?

Patellar instability occurs when the kneecap (or patella) moves out of its normal position, either partially or completely. This can happen due to injury, genetic factors, or issues with how the bones and muscles in the knee work together.

In chronic patellar instability, this problem happens repeatedly or doesn’t go away. This can lead to discomfort, swelling, and difficulty moving the knee. Over time, it can even cause damage to the cartilage and bones in the knee joint.

Imagine your knee as a hinge on a door. When everything is working smoothly, the door opens and closes easily. But when the hinge is loose, the door wobbles and can even fall off. Chronic patellar instability is like having a loose hinge in your knee, making it less stable and prone to dislocation.

An athlete’s knee popped out of place with playing sports.

What Happens When My Knee “Pops” Out of Place?

When a knee dislocates or “pops” out of place, it’s like a sudden and sharp twist in the knee’s normal movement. This often happens when the kneecap (patella) slides completely off its groove at the end of the thigh bone (femur). Picture a train coming off its tracks.

During a patellar dislocation, you might feel a sudden intense pain and see the kneecap shift to the side of the leg. This dislocation can stretch or even tear ligaments that hold the kneecap in place.

One important ligament in this area is the medial patellofemoral ligament (MPFL), which helps keep the kneecap from drifting too far to the side. When the knee dislocates, the MPFL can get strained or injured, affecting how the kneecap tracks along the thigh bone.

What Causes a Kneecap Dislocation to Happen?

Knee dislocations—where the patella (kneecap) pops out of place—can happen due to various reasons, often linked to common knee injuries. Imagine your knee as a complex system of ropes and pulleys, and when one part isn’t working right, the whole system can go haywire.

One common cause is a sudden twist or blow to the knee during sports or accidents. This can happen when you pivot sharply while playing basketball or football, or if you fall and land awkwardly on your knee. It’s like a sudden jolt to your knee’s delicate balance, causing the patella to slip out of its groove.

Weak muscles around the knee can also contribute to patellar instability. An imbalance in the muscles or tightness in certain ligaments can also pull the patella off track. For example, tightness in the iliotibial (IT) band—a thick band of tissue that runs along the outside of the thigh—can cause the patella to track improperly, increasing the risk of knee dislocation.

Symptoms of a Dislocated Kneecap

When your kneecap slides out of place, it can cause some clear signs that something’s not right. Some of the common signs of a dislocated patella could include the following:

  • Sharp pain in the knee, as if something shifted out of alignment, making it difficult to move or bear weight.
  • Swelling and tenderness around the kneecap, with the affected area feeling unusually warm to the touch.
  • Instability or a sensation that the knee might give out, sometimes causing it to buckle or “lock up” and limiting your range of motion.
  • Difficulty fully straightening or bending the knee after a dislocation.
  • Popping sensation when the kneecap dislocates.

If experiencing any of these symptoms after a knee injury, seeking medical attention is crucial for assessment and appropriate treatment to aid healing and prevent future dislocations.

How is a Dislocated Knee Joint Diagnosed?

Diagnosing a dislocated knee typically involves a few key steps to determine what’s going on inside the joint.

Firstly, the healthcare provider will ask about the injury and any symptoms you’re experiencing. This helps them understand what might be happening and what to look for during the examination.

Next, they’ll physically examine your knee, checking for signs like swelling, tenderness, and instability. They might gently move your knee to see how it responds and assess how the kneecap sits in its groove.

To get a closer look, they may order imaging tests like X-rays or MRI scans. X-rays can show if the kneecap is out of place or if there are any fractures in the bones around the knee. MRI scans provide detailed images of the soft tissues, like ligaments and cartilage, helping to assess any damage or instability.

During the examination and imaging, the healthcare provider will also evaluate the range of motion in your knee. This involves checking how well you can bend and straighten your knee and if there are any limitations or discomfort.

Based on the findings, the healthcare provider can make a diagnosis of a dislocated knee and determine the extent of the injury.

Treatment for a Dislocated Knee

Treating a dislocated knee often involves a combination of methods to help the knee heal and prevent future dislocations.

Firstly, if the kneecap is out of place, a healthcare provider might gently guide it back into its groove, a process called reduction. This can help relieve pain and restore stability to the knee.

After reduction, managing pain and swelling is crucial. This might involve rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE). Over-the-counter pain relievers can also help ease discomfort.

Physical therapy plays a key role in recovery. A physical therapist can create a customized exercise program to strengthen the muscles around the knee and improve flexibility. This helps stabilize the knee and reduce the risk of future dislocations.

In some cases, a knee brace may be recommended to provide extra support and stability during activities. This can help protect the knee while it heals and prevents further injuries.

For severe or recurrent dislocations, arthroscopic surgery may be necessary. This minimally invasive procedure allows surgeons to repair damaged ligaments and structures inside the knee joint. It can help restore stability and reduce the risk of future dislocations.

In rare cases where conservative treatments aren’t effective, reconstructive surgery might be considered. This involves rebuilding the ligaments and other structures around the knee to improve stability and prevent dislocations.

Seeking Expert Care for Knee Dislocations

Experiencing a knee dislocation can be frightening and painful, but with proper treatment and care, you can regain stability and function in your knee. Whether your dislocation requires conservative measures like physical therapy or more advanced interventions like surgery, the team at Orthopedic Specialists & Sports Medicine is here to help. 

With locations in Granville and Coshocton, OH, our orthopedic specialists are dedicated to providing personalized care to get you back on your feet. Don’t let knee dislocation hold you back from enjoying life to the fullest. Schedule an appointment today to start your journey toward recovery and optimal knee health!

Medically reviewed by Brad L. Bernacki, MD

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