Common Knee Injuries in Sports

Father comforting his son with a knee injury from basketball

The knee joint is the largest joint in your body. It connects the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shinbone) and allows you to walk, run, keep your balance, and much more. Obviously, the knee is an incredibly important joint in our bodies, and healthy function of the knee is integral to almost all sports.

However, the unique anatomy of the knee joint and its key role in movement also make it susceptible to sports-related injuries. In fact, knee injuries account for 41% of all sports injuries.

What Are the Most Common Knee Injuries in Sports?

The most common sports-related knee injuries are sprains and tears of connective tissues (particularly the ACL and the meniscus). Many sports knee injuries can involve more than one part of the joint, however. The first signs of many different issues with the knee joint are pain and swelling.

While for many athletes, getting back in the game quickly is a priority, it’s vital to determine what kind of injury is causing symptoms so that you can get the best treatment and avoid long-term issues with your knees.

1. Torn Meniscus

A meniscus tear is one of the most common sports-related knee injuries. The meniscus is the cartilage that provides a cushion between the two bones that meet in a joint. In the knee, there are two menisci that cushion the tibia (shinbone) and femur (thigh bone).

A torn meniscus occurs when the knee is twisted or over-rotated, which is why athletes that play sports that involve pivoting, like basketball, tennis, and football, are often at risk.

Symptoms of a torn meniscus

  • Pain around the knee
  • Clicking or popping sound
  • A feeling of fullness in the knee
  • Stiffness and limited range of motion
  • Feeling of your knee giving out and/or locking into place

2. Knee Ligament Injuries

What people commonly call a “knee sprain” is usually an injury to ligaments in the knee. Ligaments are fibrous bands of connective tissue made up of collagen fibers that connect bone to bone. Knee ligament injuries can occur in many different sports, particularly through overuse, trauma, or sudden pivots.

In the knee joint, there are four main ligaments which stabilize the knee joint and allow for the joint’s natural range of motion to occur.

Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL)

The ACL connects the femur to the tibia and controls rotation and forward movement of the shin. ACL injuries occur when this ligament is sprained or torn. This is the most common sports-related knee injury because the ligament often tears when a person changes direction rapidly, slows down or stops suddenly, or lands from a jump incorrectly.

The ACL can also be injured from direct contact or a collision. Football, basketball, and volleyball players, as well as other athletes that perform a lot of sudden starts and stops, are most susceptible to ACL injuries.

Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL)

The PCL is at the center of the knee, and it prevents the tibia, or shinbone, from moving backwards. The PCL is the strongest ligament in the knee, and is not injured as often as the ACL. However, it can be torn in direct contact sports such as football.

Lateral Collateral Ligament (LCL)

The LCL is located on the outer side of the knee and prevents the knee from bending inward. The LCL is the knee ligament least likely to suffer from a sports-related injury, but as with any area of the knee, a direct trauma to the area can cause injury.

Medial Collateral Ligament (MCL)

The medial collateral ligament, or MCL, is located on the inner side of the knee. It prevents the knee from bending outward. Like the PCL, this ligament is not injured as often as the ACL, but can be injured in contact sports.

Symptoms of knee-ligament injuries

  • A loud pop or snap at the time of injury
  • Difficulty walking
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness and black/blue coloration along the joint
  • Loss of range of motion
  • A feeling of instability
  • Inability to bear weight

3. Patellar Tendonitis (Jumper’s Knee)

Patellar tendonitis occurs when the connective tissue between the bottom of the patella (kneecap) and the tibia becomes inflamed or injured. This condition is also known as “Jumper’s Knee” because it is an overuse injury that often occurs when athletes jump repeatedly. Basketball and volleyball players, both recreational and professional, are especially susceptible to patellar tendonitis.

Symptoms of patellar tendonitis

  • Pain in the front of the knee, especially when kneeling or applying pressure to the knee
  • Tenderness around the lower part of the kneecap
  • Swelling
  • Pain and stiffness when jumping, running, walking, and/or straightening and bending the leg

4. Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome

Patellofemoral pain syndrome is a broader term for issues with the soft tissues surrounding the kneecap that cause pain. This syndrome is also known as “Runner’s Knee” because it is common in athletes who run and perform other activities that require repetitive flexion of the knee joint.

Symptoms of patellofemoral pain syndrome

  • Dull, aching pain in the front of the knee
  • Pain that worsens with walking, running, squatting, prolonged sitting, or squatting

5. Knee Bursitis

Knee Bursitis is the inflammation of the bursa, a small, fluid-filled sac that protects the knee joint. There are three major bursae surrounding the knee joint, all of which protect the knee and reduce friction between tissues in the body.

Knee bursitis most commonly affects the prepatellar bursa, which is located over the kneecap.  Bursitis can occur in athletes if the bursa fills with blood due to injury or overuse.

Symptoms of knee bursitis

  • Mild to moderate pain in the knee
  • Warmth or redness in the affected area
  • Stiffness when walking (severe cases)
  • Fever and illness can occur in case of septic bursitis – seek immediate care if you present this symptom
  • Swelling / the appearance of a lump on the knee

6. Iliotibial Band Syndrome

The iliotibial (IT) band is a dense band of fascia that originates in the iliac crest (upper part of hip bone), runs along the outer part of the thigh, and attaches at the top of the tibia (shinbone). This tough band of connective tissue and its associated muscles are responsible for extending, abducting, and laterally rotating the hip.

IT band syndrome is an overuse injury, often suffered by athletes like runners and cyclists whose activities require repeated extension and flexion of the knee.

Symptoms of iliotibial band syndrome

  • Lingering pain after exercising, especially in the outer part of the knee
  • Clicking or rubbing sensation on the side of the knee
  • Pain that spreads up the thigh and into the hip

Treating Your Knee Injury

If you’re experiencing pain in the knee, it’s important to determine whether the cause is something like patellar tendonitis or knee osteoarthritis versus a more acute trauma like patella fracture. With a fractured patella, you will likely experience sharp pain and obvious swelling in addition to difficulty walking and/or bending and straightening the leg.

While many sports-related knee injuries and conditions can cause symptoms such as swelling and difficulty/pain when walking, if you aren’t sure what’s causing your symptoms, it’s time to see your doctor.

When Should You Visit a Doctor for a Knee Injury?

If your knee joint is visibly bent or deformed, if you heard a popping sound at the time of injury, you are experiencing sharp pain, or you’re unable to bear any weight on the knee, it’s best to see a doctor as soon as possible.

For milder symptoms, you can try the RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) method for a day or two before reevaluating. If symptoms remain the same or worsen, make an appointment with your doctor.

How are Sports Knee Injuries Diagnosed?

To diagnose a sports knee injury, your doctor will first perform a physical exam on your knee to check for swelling and tenderness. Your doctor will also perform tests to determine the joint’s range of motion.

For more serious cases, and to diagnose and address some cartilage and ligament injuries, your doctor may recommend a knee arthroscopy surgery. This is a minimally invasive procedure consisting of a few minor incisions on either side of the knee, which allows doctors to easily see inside the knee and address more serious issues with ligaments or cartilage.

How Do You Treat a Sports Knee Injury?

The first line of treatment for many less serious sports knee injuries is the RICE method (rest, ice, compress, elevate), often combined with NSAID medications such as ibuprofen, to decrease swelling and pain.

Physical therapy that stretches and strengthens the muscles that support the knee joint can also be an extremely effective intervention for many of the sports related knee injuries mentioned above. IT band syndrome, for instance, will almost always benefit from a stretching and strengthening regimen of the muscles that support the joints.

Ongoing habits like regular foam rolling, stretching, and warm ups/cool downs before and after athletic activities can help lessen and prevent future injuries.

However, some sports injuries, including fractures, ACL tears, and meniscus tears, might require knee surgery for you to make a full recovery.

Knee surgery doesn’t have to be scary — if you’re suffering from a serious sports knee injury, let the compassionate experts at Alexander Orthopaedics help you understand your options for treatment.

How Long Does it Take to Recover From a Sports Knee Injury?

Recovering from sports-related knee injuries can take just a few weeks to many months depending on the kind of injury and the treatment required. For a mild injury, several days of the RICE method followed by a slow return to regular activity might be all that’s needed.

On the other hand, for patients who require total knee replacement surgery or other procedures, recovery can take three-four months. Some physical therapy protocols can also take months, though the healthy function of the joint can increase throughout the recovery period.

Schedule an Appointment for Your Knee Injury at Alexander Orthopaedics

If you’re suffering from a sports knee injury, it’s imperative to get the right diagnosis before you decide on the best treatment to get you back in the game. Schedule an appointment with the experts at Alexander Orthopaedics today.

Common Knee Injuries in Sports FAQs

What Should I Avoid if I Have an Injured Knee?

While it depends on what kind of injury you have, generally it’s best to avoid high impact exercises such as running and jumping when you have an injured knee. Activities that create deep flexion of the knee, such as lunges and squats, should also be avoided.

How Can I Prevent Knee Injuries in Sports?

While it might be impossible to always prevent knee injuries in sports, there are steps you can take to decrease your chance of injury.

  • Always warm up and cool down before and after exercise
  • Strengthen and stretch the muscles that support the knee joint
  • Wear properly fitting shoes
  • Build up workout intensity slowly
  • Cross-train to prevent overuse injuries
  • Stay hydrated
  • Opt for a rest day or low-impact activities if you’re experiencing any early or mild symptoms of knee injury
  • Don’t “play through the pain” — when you experience pain in the knee joint, take it seriously

What Are the Best Exercises for Rehabilitation After a Knee Injury?

After a knee injury, it’s important to strengthen and stretch the muscles that support the knee joint, which include the hip abductors and the hamstrings. In many athletes, the quadriceps (front-thigh muscles) are a lot stronger than the hamstrings.

This type of muscle imbalance can lead to injury, so focus your strengthening routine on weaker muscles groups while focusing your stretching on stronger muscle groups.

In general, activities that can benefit your rehabilitation after knee injury include:

  • Foam rolling
  • Stretching and strengthening exercises, especially for the hamstrings and hip abductors (hamstring curls, clamshells, and lateral leg lifts)
  • Low impact exercises such as walking, swimming, pilates, and yoga