Dislocated kneecap

A dislocated kneecap is a common injury that normally takes about 6 weeks to heal.

It’s often caused by a blow or a sudden change in direction when the leg is planted on the ground, such as during sports or dancing.

The kneecap (patella) normally sits over the front of the knee. It glides over a groove in the joint when you bend or straighten your leg. 

When the kneecap dislocates, it comes out of this groove and the supporting tissues can be stretched or torn.

Symptoms of a dislocated kneecap

When a kneecap dislocates, it’ll usually look out of place or at an odd angle. But in many cases it’ll pop back into place soon afterwards.

Other symptoms can include:

  • a “popping” sensation 
  • severe knee pain
  • being unable to straighten the knee 
  • sudden swelling of the knee 
  • being unable to walk

What to do if you dislocate your kneecap

A dislocated kneecap is not usually serious and will often pop back into place by itself.

But it’s still a good idea to get it checked by a health professional:

  • if your kneecap has gone back into place by itself – go to your nearest urgent treatment centre or A&E
  • if you cannot get to hospital without being in severe pain, you should call an ambulance – do not try to put the cap back in place yourself 

While you’re on your way to hospital or waiting for an ambulance, sit still with your leg in the most comfortable position.

Treatment for a dislocated kneecap

If your kneecap has not corrected itself by the time you get to hospital, a doctor will manipulate it back into place. This is known as a reduction.

You may be given medicine to ensure you’re relaxed and free from pain while this is done.

Once the kneecap is back in place, you may have an X-ray to check the bones are in the correct position and there’s no other damage.

You’ll be sent home with painkillers and your leg will normally be immobilised in a removable splint to begin with. 

A few weeks of physiotherapy will be recommended to aid your recovery.

Surgery is usually only necessary if there was a fracture or another associated injury, such as a ligament tear. 

It may also be done if you have dislocated your kneecap at least once before.

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