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What is Patellar Tendonitis?

The patellar tendon is a tough, flexible tissue that attaches the kneecap to the shinbone. It helps the muscles in the front of your thigh to straighten your leg.

Repeated strain on a tendon can cause tiny micro-tears in the tissue. The body will try to heal these tears, but sometimes they are made faster than the body can fix them. As the number of tears increases, they can cause pain from inflammation, weaken the tendon, and cause larger tears in the tissue.

Jumping and landing put repeated strain on the patellar tendon, causing injury and inflammation. Although most common in athletes who play sports which involve a lot of jumping, patellar tendonitis can also occur with knee problems that have caused damage to the area, such as arthritis, muscle tears, or dislocation.

Often, patellar tendonitis can get better with rest or physical therapy. Over-the-counter medicine may be needed to relieve pain.

Symptoms

Pain and weakness in the knee are the most common symptoms of patellar tendonitis. The pain is usually between the kneecap the shinbone. At first you may feel it only when you’re playing sports. As it gets worse, you may feel it when walking and climbing stairs. You might also notice that the pain feels like it is moving down to the foot or up the leg.

When to See a Doctor

See a healthcare provider if:

  • Your symptoms do not improve after icing your knee and avoiding the activities that make it hurt
  • Your symptoms are getting worse or interfering with your everyday life
  • Your knee is red or swollen for more than a few days

Some symptoms of patellar tendonitis are shared by other, more severe, conditions like osteoarthritis, tendon tears, and fractures. You should see a healthcare provider if your symptoms don’t go away after a few days.

Causes

Patellar tendonitis is often caused by playing sports that require a lot of running and jumping. This can include basketball and volleyball, or even hiking. These activities can cause more strain if you quickly increase how hard or how often you do them. Having tight leg muscles or some leg muscles are a lot stronger than others can also increase stress on the patellar tendon.

Most of these risks can be reduced with proper warming up and training.

Diagnosis and Tests

To diagnose patellar tendonitis, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam. During this exam, your healthcare provider may press on the area where the tendons attach to the shin or knee to see if they can feel any hardness or swelling. Your healthcare provider may also ask you to move your knee to assess your range of motion. You may also be asked to perform simple knee exercises that will help your healthcare provider determine how strong your knee is.

Your healthcare provider may also ask you a few questions about your symptoms, such as:

  • When did your symptoms start?
  • Are they getting worse?
  • Do you have swelling, buckling, locking, or snapping in your knee?
  • Have your symptoms gotten in the way of or stopped you from doing normal activities like walking, running, standing, or using stairs?
  • Have you tried any self-care or at-home treatments?

If your healthcare provider finds that you have the symptoms of patellar tendonitis, your healthcare provider may perform an x-ray, ultrasound, or MRI to confirm the diagnosis.

Treatments

Treatment will usually focus on relieving the pain and preventing further injury.

Your healthcare provider will help you determine a treatment plan for your patellar tendonitis. If your case is mild, you may be able to treat your tendon with the RICE method to help relieve pain and reduce swelling:

  • Rest. Avoid putting weight on the injured bone, and avoid participating in normal activities until you get better. Switch to something lower impact for a while. For example, try swimming instead of running until you condition heals.
  • Ice. Use an ice pack (you can also use a bag of frozen vegetables if you do not have an ice pack) for 15 to 20 minutes, 3 times a day.
  • Compression. You can use supportive taping, a compression bandage or compression brace to help put pressure on the bone and reduce swelling.
  • Elevation. To keep swelling down, elevate (raise) your knee above the level of your heart. You can do this by sitting or lying down on a couch or floor and placing pillows under the injured foot, leg, or arm until it is higher than your chest.

Your healthcare provider may also recommend taking over-the-counter pain medicine. If your case is more severe, your healthcare provider may recommend physical therapy.

In the most severe cases, or if your tendon does not get better with other treatments, your healthcare provider may recommend surgery. If your healthcare provider recommends surgery, they will help you develop a rehabilitation plan that will help you with recovery.

Prevention

You can prevent or reduce patellar tendonitis by:

  • Stretching and warming up all your leg muscles properly and using proper technique during your regular activities. 
  • Paying attention to knee pain and not trying to push through it. Ease up on activities that cause pain.

Patellar [puh-TELL-ar] tendonitis is when the tendon that connects your kneecap (patella) to your shinbone (tibia) is injured. It’s a common injury in sports that require a lot of running and jumping, but anyone can get it. Most of the time, it can be healed with physical therapy. Sometimes proper stretching and proper training can help prevent it.