Patellar Dislocation in Children: What Parents Need to Know

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Published On

Oct 21, 2019



The first time your child experiences a patellar dislocation, also called a kneecap dislocation, it can be a scary experience for you and your child. Your child may have pain and the leg may buckle, resulting in a fall.

Understanding what causes a patellar dislocation, knowing its symptoms, and being aware of the treatments available will give you peace of mind and help you to reassure your child if a patellar dislocation should happen again.

What Causes Patellar Dislocation?

When the knee functions as intended, the kneecap sits securely in a groove at the end of the thighbone. The kneecap should move up and down in the groove when the knee extends or bends. Problems arise when the kneecap moves too far to the left or the right, which creates a misplacement.

The kneecap can either partially or completely dislocate. Sometimes, this occurs because of a fall or injury to the knee. The kneecap may return to its normal position on its own or may need to be put back in place by a physician.

Knee dislocations in children are often due to abnormalities in the structure of the knee, which makes it easy for the kneecap to slip out of place. If a child’s ligaments are loose, this causes the joints to be more flexible, which can result in a higher likelihood of patellar dislocation. These abnormalities are often present in both knees and tend to occur more frequently in girls than boys.

Children with Down Syndrome and cerebral palsy may be more susceptible to knee dislocations due to issues with imbalance and muscle weakness. Though rare, some children are born with unstable kneecaps and may suffer painless dislocations at a very early age.

What Are the Symptoms of Patellar Dislocation?

Your child may or may not complain of pain with a patellar dislocation. In a partial dislocation, your child may complain of a feeling like the kneecap is sliding around when they run or are active. Afterward, it may pop back in place. You or your child may hear a popping or grinding sound in the knee.

Complete dislocations can be painful. The knee may look misshapen or appear swollen. A displaced kneecap may cause the knee to buckle and can lead to a fall. If a young child appears to fall frequently when running, you should have a doctor rule out kneecap disorders that may cause slight instability in the knee.

What Are the Common Treatments for Patellar Dislocations?

You should always seek medical attention when your child suffers a knee displacement. In complete displacements, a doctor will need to put the kneecap back in place using a procedure called reduction, which consists of the doctor applying pressure to the knee to manipulate it back in place. Your child may be given medication to ease the discomfort and relax the knee prior to this procedure.

Your child may be required to wear a brace for several weeks to keep the knee stable and prevent further dislocations while the knee heals. Your child may need to use crutches for ambulation, as weight bearing may prolong the healing process. Physical therapy is beneficial for strengthening weak knee musculature and improving balance issues.

Your doctor may also order imagining studies, such as x-rays and an MRI, to determine the cause of the dislocation and look for damage to ligaments and tissue. If dislocations are from structural damage around the knee, surgery may be necessary in some cases.

Patellar dislocation can be a frightening and painful experience for children. The uncertainty of recurrent episodes can make your child apprehensive when playing sports or participating in gym class at school. Contact The Noyes Knee Institute for a consultation regarding patellar dislocation and the treatments available to protect your child’s knee health.