Common Knee & Lower Leg Injuries

Knee injures are one of the most common reasons patients see an orthopaedic specialist. In 2010 there were more than 10 million patient visits for knee injuries such as fractures, dislocations, sprains, and ligament tears. The knee is the largest joint in the body and is made up of bones, cartilage, ligaments, and tendons. Any of these components may be injured.

ACL Injuries

The anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, helps control the back-and-forth motion of the knee, and it is most commonly injured during high-demand sports like soccer, football, or basketball. The ACL may be sprained or torn, leading to pain, swelling, and, if severe, loss of range of motion of the affected knee. Physicians evaluate ACL injuries using X-ray and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to determine if the ligament is injured and if there are any associated injuries (e.g., a broken bone). Treatment is based on the severity of the injury; surgery may be necessary for severe tears of the ACL.

Review the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) information on Anterior Cruciate Ligament (ACL) Injuries here.

Knee Fractures

The three bones that make up the knee joint are the femur or thighbone, the tibia or shinbone, and the patella or kneecap. Knee fractures occur most commonly in the patella, but the ends of the femur and tibia that meet to form the joint can also be fractured. Many knee fractures are caused by high-impact injuries such as those that occur during motor vehicle accidents. Fractures can cause pain, swelling, and the inability to walk. Treatment depends on the severity and location of the fracture and can involve casts, splints, or surgery.

Review AAOS information on Patellar (Kneecap) Fractures here.

Lower Leg Fractures

There are two bones that make up the lower leg: the tibia and the fibula. The tibia is the larger of the two and supports most of the body’s weight. It is also the most commonly fractured long bone in the body. When the tibia breaks, there are typically accompanying injuries because it takes a major force to break these bones. Fractures can lead to pain, swelling, deformity, and the inability to walk or bear weight on the affected leg. Most patients who are healthy and active undergo surgery to stabilize and repair the fracture.

Review more information on Fractures of the Proximal Tibia (Shinbone) here.

Growth Plate Fractures

Growth plates are areas of cartilage found near the ends of bones that are still growing. Injuries to these areas are called growth plate fractures, and they occur most commonly in the fingers, forearm, and lower leg. The growth plate determines the eventual length and shape of the mature bone, so growth plate fractures require immediate evaluation and treatment (e.g., casting, surgery) to prevent the limb from being crooked or an unequal length to its companion limb. With proper treatment serious problems are rare.

Review more information on Growth Plate Fractures here.

Meniscal Tears

Within the knee there are two cartilage structures, the lateral meniscus and the medial meniscus, that provide cushion between the thighbone and the shinbone. In addition to acting as shock absorbers, they also help keep the knee joint stable. Meniscal tears, often referred to as torn cartilage, are one of the most common injuries of the knee. Athletes, especially those that play contact sports, are at high risk for meniscal tears. Meniscal tears commonly cause pain, stiffness, swelling, and knee instability. An orthopaedic surgeon treats meniscal tears based on the type of tear and its size and location.

Patellar Tendon Tears

The patellar tendon attaches the patella (i.e., kneecap) to the top of the tibia (i.e., shinbone), and it works in conjunction with the quadriceps muscles to straighten the leg. Tears of the patellar tendon and subsequent instability can occur in anyone but are more common in those who play running or jumping sports. A tear of this tendon is seriously disabling and surgery is required to regain full function of the knee.

Review more information on Patellar Tendon Tears here

Shin Splints

“Shin splints” refers to pain along the inner edge of the shin and is a common problem after physical activity. It is caused by inflammation of the muscles, tendons, and tissue around the tibia, the large bone of the lower leg. Shin splints are mainly associated with running but any sports activity can cause them, especially if someone is just beginning a fitness program. Rest, ice, and stretching can help, as can being careful not to overwork during exercise.

Review more information about Shin Splints here.

Stress Fractures

Similar to what can happen in the foot and ankle, stress fractures can occur in the bones of the lower leg (i.e., the tibia and fibula). Stress fractures are minor bone cracks or bruises typically caused by overuse and repetitive activity. They should be suspected in anyone with pain or swelling after an increase in activity or repeated activity with little to no rest. Avoidance of the activity that led to the stress fracture is key to recovery, as resuming too soon can delay healing and increase the risk for a complete fracture. In most cases, recovery takes six to eight weeks, but more severe stress fractures can take longer to heal.

Review AAOS information on Stress Fractures here.

Other Knee Injuries

For more information on many other injuries that can occur in the knee and lower leg, review any of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons links listed below.

Collateral Ligament Injuries
Combined Knee Ligament Injuries
Common Knee Injuries
Distal Femur (Thighbone) Fractures of the Knee
Osgood-Schlatter Disease (Knee Pain)
Patellar Dislocation and Instability in Children (Unstable Kneecap)
Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome
Posterior Cruciate Ligament Injuries
Quadriceps Tendon Tear
Tibia (Shinbone) Shaft Fractures
Unstable Kneecap

Quick Fact

One of the most common injuries in sports is a stress fracture with most occurring in the weight bearing bones of the lower leg and foot.