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Patellar Tendon Tear

The patellar tendon connects the kneecap to the leg.  During sports that involve running or jumping or because of tendonitis, certain medical conditions, or steroid use, the tendon can tear.  Small partial tears may heal with non-surgical treatment; however, most patellar tendon tears require surgery followed by physical therapy rehabilitation.

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The knee is composed of three bones.  The thighbone (femur), sits on the larger leg bone (tibia).  The kneecap (patella) glides in a groove on the end of the femur.  The upper portion of the patellar tendon attaches at the lower side of the kneecap.  The lower portion attaches near the top of the tibia (anterior tibial tubercle). Tendons are strong tissues that connect muscles to bones. The patellar tendon plays a role in holding the kneecap in place and straightening the knee.

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The patellar tendon can tear completely or partially.  Complete patellar tendon tears tend to detach at the kneecap.  Such injuries occur from a strong impact to the knee or during sports that require running or jumping. 

Partial tendon tears usually occur in the middle of the tendon, because of patellar tendonitis, chronic disease, or steroid use.  Weak or inflamed tendons are more likely to tear.  Patella tendon tears happen more often in middle-aged people.

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You may have a popping sensation when the patellar tendon tears, followed by pain and swelling.  Your kneecap may appear higher than usual.  Other symptoms of a patellar tendon tear include: 

• Knee Bruising
• Knee Cramping
• Knee Buckling
• Difficulty Walking
• Inability to Straighten the Knee

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A doctor diagnoses a patellar tendon tear by reviewing your history, examining the knee, and conducting medical imaging tests.  Your doctor may order X-Rays or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans to provide views of the knee bones and soft tissues to confirm the diagnosis. 

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Most people with patellar tendon tears require surgery to reattach the tendon to the kneecap.  Surgery to repair a torn patellar tendon usually requires an overnight inpatient stay, although it may be performed as an outpatient surgery, depending on the circumstances.  Patellar tendon surgery is performed with regional (spinal) anesthesia or general anesthesia. 

To begin, the orthopedic surgeon makes an incision over the kneecap.  The patellar tendon is reattached to the kneecap with sutures or surgical hardware.  The surgeon carefully checks the kneecap position and tendon tension.

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Orthopedic surgeons treat patellar tendon tears on a case-by-case basis.  The type of treatment that you receive depends on several factors, including your age and activity level, as well as the size and type of tendon tear.  Some very small tears are treated non-surgically.  You may wear a knee immobilizer and use crutches for three to six weeks.  A physical therapist will first teach you exercises to strengthen the muscles (quadriceps) that straighten the knee.  Your physical therapist will increase your exercise regime as you heal.

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Your doctor will prescribe pain medication and recommend ice following surgery.  You will wear a brace or cast and use crutches at first, gradually increasing the amount of weight that you put on your foot. 

As you heal, physical therapists will teach you strengthening exercises.  You will gradually be able to bend your knee, per your doctor's instructions.  Complete recovery can take 6 to 12 months, depending on the extent of injury and surgery.

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This information is intended for educational and informational purposes only. It should not be used in place of an individual consultation or examination or replace the advice of your health care professional and should not be relied upon to determine diagnosis or course of treatment.

The iHealthSpot patient education library was written collaboratively by the iHealthSpot editorial team which includes Senior Medical Authors Dr. Mary Car-Blanchard, OTD/OTR/L and Valerie K. Clark, and the following editorial advisors: Steve Meadows, MD, Ernie F. Soto, DDS, Ronald J. Glatzer, MD, Jonathan Rosenberg, MD, Christopher M. Nolte, MD, David Applebaum, MD, Jonathan M. Tarrash, MD, and Paula Soto, RN/BSN. This content complies with the HONcode standard for trustworthy health information. The library commenced development on September 1, 2005 with the latest update/addition on April 13th, 2016. For information on iHealthSpot’s other services including medical website design, visit

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