What to Do If You Dislocate Your Kneecap «

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What to Do If You Dislocate Your Kneecap

The kneecap is under that brown tendon.

by James Hubbard, MD, MPH

A dislocated kneecap is another one of the multiple knee injuries you can get. And you won’t be going far until it’s fixed. It’s painful, most of the time there’s a lot of swelling, and your knee can’t straighten.

Obviously you have to get to a doctor as soon as you can to make sure nothing else is injured and to put it back in place. Often, the doctor will also drain some of the blood off that’s accumulated around it (which can ease the pain dramatically).

But if getting to a doctor is impossible, here are some things you can try.

Why You Shouldn’t Always Put It Back in Place

Treatment depends, to an extent, on what sort of injury we’re talking about. Beware of bad breaks.

Sometimes it just takes twisting wrong to dislocate the kneecap. Other times there’s an added bump to one side of the kneecap. (For instance, you hit the side of a table while you’re twisting, and the kneecap dislocates to the opposite side of where you hit it.)

When the dislocation comes from something like either one of those scenarios, you can pretty well assume you didn’t break anything. Maybe a there’s little crack in the kneecap or tibia (lower leg bone), but there’s no big break that’s going to dislocate too.

The more forceful the hit, the less you can assume there’s no broken bone. So if there’s been major trauma, just splint the knee in the position it feels best and get off of it (or use crutches). Then get to a doctor as soon as you can.

For those minor bumps and twists, it’s best to try to put the kneecap back in place right away (if you can’t get to a doctor) before more swelling sets in and makes it harder to do.

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How to Relocate a Dislocated Kneecap

Here’s how to put a dislocated kneecap back in place:

  1. If possible, ask someone to help. Your leg will need to flex and straighten, and it’s best to have someone do that for you. Straightening your leg on your own requires contracting the quadriceps muscle in your thigh. That tightens the tendon that connects to your kneecap. The tighter the tendon, the harder it is for the kneecap to move back into place.
  2. Flex your hip by sitting. If you’re lying down grab around your thigh and pull it toward you about 30 degrees or so. This relaxes your quadriceps muscle a bit, which loosens that tendon I mentioned in step 1. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about, read the “Anatomy” section of my post on Osgood-Schlatter disease.)
  3. Have someone slowly straighten the knee while the hip is bent. Or do it yourself if no one is available. Apply gentle pressure to the side of the kneecap to try to tease it back in place.
  4. Go slowly. You can try several times, but never force it since you could break something or make an already broken bone much worse.

After the kneecap is back in place:

  1. Wrap it with an elastic bandage or use a knee brace. This does little or nothing to keep the kneecap in place, but moderate compression can keep the swelling down.
  2. Stay off of your injured leg if you can and apply ice packs, if available, for 10 minutes at a time intermittently. Use a cane or crutches.
  3. Get to a doctor as soon as possible for further evaluation to see what is torn or broken.
  4. Expect it may happen again—maybe not right away, but somewhere down the road. If it dislocates over and over again, you’re going to need surgery to keep that from happening.

Has anyone ever had a kneecap dislocate? Painful? Scary? How did you get it back in place? How’s it doing now?

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  • kristie

    hi doc. my knee cap dislocated couple days ago. and i went to go see the doctors and got a x-ray done and it turns out to be perfectly fine. I’m just having some problems here. i can straighten my leg and bent it just a little. but when i go farther it seems like my thigh muscle is pulling my knee. is that normal? and i’m leaving for a vacation in a couple of days. can i still go?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Everyone’s a little different but if you totally dislocated your kneecap, the usual treatment is a brace and limited weight bearing for a while. But, whatever doctor who examined you is in a much better position to give you specific advice. If you weren’t, I’d check back and ask.

      • Kristie

        I do have a brace on right now, I just don’t know if it’s normal to see the muscles being tight

        • Kristie

          I mean feel

          • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

            When muscles get hurt, they tend to contract (tighten).

  • Alex

    Hi Doctor, I dislocated my knee about 4 months ago while I was messing around with friends and it took a while to get back into place since i was scared to put it back but it went back into place on its own.I went to see a doctor and the doctor said there was no real damage and to just wear a knee brace to keep my knee straight and crutches, and it would take about 6 to 8 weeks to heal. After that went by I continued my physical activity since I run track and everything was fine it was like it never happened. But today I was playing football in my gym class and while I was running and getting through people my knee came out of place again but just as fast as it came out of place it went right back in. It doesn’t hurt nearly as much as the first time and I am able to apply pressure on it to an extent. Is there a way I can prevent this from happening during physical activity without surgery or should I just give up on sports?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Sometimes a course of physical therapy prescribed from you doctor can help. Sometimes the only option to keep it from recurring is surgery.

  • Julie

    Hi Doctor, I have a friend who dislocated his kneecap 2 weeks ago, he is 40 and its happened a few times in his life but this was the worst time according to him, it went all the way out. He did go to hospital and saw a specialist a week later. My question is, what can I say to him to convince him to take this seriously and look after his leg? He has a knee brace on but still drives a car and puts full weight on it all the time. He refused to use the crutches offered by the nurse. He is walking very very slowly and does not walk much now except to go to the toilet, etc. He says the specialist did not tell him whether or not to bear any weight on the knee or how much. He was told not to drive a car. As he also has Crohns’ Disease, I am very concerned for his health, and that he will lose physical fitness and his muscles will atrophy and make it so much harder to recover properly. Thank you very much in advance.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Julie, in general, weight bearing as tolerated is started about a week or two after the injury. The knee immobilizer is worn for several weeks. Hopefully, he will start physical therapy soon. A patella dislocation injures muscles and ligaments, often tearing them. It also can injure the cartilage that surrounds and cushions the bone. Not taking care of it (walking too soon, etc) will risk injuring more cartilage. The more cartilage injured, the more severe his arthritis may become in the next few years. On the other hand, he will need supervised physical therapy to build the muscles back. Not doing that will weaken his leg and increase his risk of another dislocation. Also, hopefully, he will talk to his doctor about a surgical repair. If he’s done this several times, he’s likely had some tears which will lead to more dislocations. The more this happens, the more risk he will suffer with arthritis down the road. As far as driving with with a knee immobilizer that’s taking an unnecessary risk to himself and all the others on the road.

  • Diane Hennessey LaMont

    Every now and then if I move my leg one way it seems like my knee goes the other way, popping out of place. It hurts and I have to straighten the leg and pop it back in place. Usually in the tub or sitting. Why does this happen?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      If you’re referring to your kneecap and not your joint, it could be slightly loose kneecap. If it’s checked out and is that, sometimes some exercises or physical therapy can help.

  • John Ritter

    Sorry hit enter, what to do when surgery won’t even keep it in, first surgery was at 15 then at 35 now its over 12 yrs and it still goes out. What else can be done?

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Call around and try to find an orthopedist in your area who has an interest, not only in knees, but in patellar dislocations or at least has treated a lot of them. Then go in for an evaluation and to discuss your options along with the pros and cons of each–surgery, injections, physical therapy, etc.

  • John Ritter

    I had two surgery’s and it still dislocated and it hurts more than broken bone to me. I was told bone under kneecap isn’t curved enuf so that might be why just moving muscles and tendons over knee to try to the it down might not be enuf to keep it in.

  • Emsikj

    I have what was called by my orthopedist “loose joints” and my mom is double jointed. For the past 18 years (since I was 13) I have had full and partial dislocations of each of my knees, multiple times, at random intervals. For the past few years I’ve been good at being able to “tell” as this was happening and straighten my leg right away in order to prevent it from coming out. It’s been pretty successful. At first, they were hoping id outgrow the condition at 18, but that didn’t happen. I tried wearing a knee brace but it put pressure on my knee and ground into the bones around it as I bent my leg. I’ve never been told about any treatment before and have always been able to pop it back in and ice/elevate it, but to avoid activities where my leg pivots at the knee and my foot stays planted. Since then I’ve done that, but have also been through two pregnancies, which may have also weakened my tendons. Today it came out fully (hasn’t happened in a while) and again was able to put it back, iced it, was and am able to weight bear and started having full range of motion, but now have trouble bending it past 90 degrees and am not sure how best to care for it. Can you help? Thanks!

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      I don’t really know anything to add to by post about that. However long-term, you should definitely have your knees evaluated by an orthopedist that has a special interest in knees. Now is a good time. After the evaluation you should asks the pros and cons of treatments like aggressive and intense physical therapy or surgery–what are the chances that they would help. If not that, what might. Unless the ortho tells you otherwise and you get a customized brace, I don’t think it’s a long-term answer. And since you’re continuing to have problems, hopefully there are better alternatives than just. avoiding certain activities. Every time you dislocate, you run the risk of damaging the cartilage that pad it from the rest of your knee, chipping off fragments, and bad arthritis of the area down the road.

  • Lucy

    My boyfriend dislocated his kneecap (full dislocation) about four days ago. He went to the doctor and was sent home with instructions to rest, keep weight off of it and report back if he doesn’t see improvement in three weeks. We don’t have insurance, so going back before that is prohibitively expensive, but the doctor didn’t do x-rays or anything and said that he “could tell” that nothing was torn by the lack of pain my boyfriend was in.

    We reset the kneecap together after it popped to the side of his leg when he stepped on it. We got it reset in about four minutes. The knee is swollen and his foot swells up off and on.

    He can’t put any weight on it and he can barely move it at all after four days. Is this normal? I don’t trust that the doctor knew what he was doing, but we just don’t have the money to go to another one.

    When he’s in the bathtub, he can almost straighten it, though.

    I’m just looking for some confirmation that the lack of motion and swelling being present is normal after four days. He’s in a knee brace, we’re icing it, elevating it, doing epsom salt baths and keeping weight off of it. Lots of ibuprofen to control the pain.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      It’s consistent with that, but that doesn’t rule out another injury. But, yes, it is consistent. In general, as long as there’s no weight bearing and there’s a brace, nothing gets injured worse (unless it were cutting off circulation). But, at some point, if the injury is not getting consistently better, it has to be rechecked. The problem is no injury is exactly the same.

      • Lucy

        Thanks so much for your reply!

  • Jessica


    I dislocated my patella a few days ago during my dance class and it was placed back spontaneously by the paramedics when they arrived. I don’t go to hospitals often so I’m not sure where I was exactly but I do remember being in an acute ward or something along those lines. I couldn’t walk or move my knee in anyway however all the doctor told me was to go to physiotherapy and to ice the swelling. No braces or crutches or anything like that, not even mentioned now I think about it (however i am using my own elastic medical bandage and my own crutches on my own choices, am I making the right decision by taking matters into my own hands?). I was wondering how long I should use these things for? And when can I start walking again? Also how far in the future can I dance again? It’s been 5 days and I can sort of limp walk now but I’m afraid that will just cause more damage.

    Thank you in advance.

    • http://thesurvivaldoctor.com/ James Hubbard, MD, MPH

      Being a dancer is all the more reason you should have your knee checked out soon, and before returning to dancing.

  • Ashtan

    The way I dislocated my knee: I jumped up to catch a football (we were playing on a hill) and I slid. The other kids were shocked. My knee was 2 inches to far to the left. I didn’t know these instructions for popping it back at the time ( did it myself ) and I actually did exactly what it said. I have dislocated my knee a time before sliding in baseball so I have a brace and crutches luckily.