While out driving a number of years ago, I managed to lose control of my car on a snowy, mountain road and slam into a tree. My knee was jammed against the steering wheel and dislocated. After a little adventure with dragging myself through the mud to someplace a passerby would find me, being cut out of my pants by an ambulance worker, and then being shot full of morphine and other happpy drugs, I ended up back at home in a heavy brace, looking forward to a few months recovery time. Here are some experience-based tips on what to do–and what not to do–while you’re recovering from a dislocated knee.
The kneecap (patella) can become dislocated only if the ligaments that hold it in place tear to some degree. This tearing can be hardly anything or the ligaments may be completely torn. Cracks in the kneecap are also possible. While minor dislocations require only a light brace and a month or so healing time, more severe cases require surgery. In my case, the knee was quite severly dislocated, but not badly enough to need surgery.
Once your knee is set back into the correct location, your leg will probably put in a brace or, more rarely, a plaster cast. This may cover almost the whole leg or just the knee area, depending on the severity of the dislocation. Needless to say, this isn’t the most comfortable thing to wear. For instance, it makes it almost impossible to sleep on your side. If you can only get to sleep lying on your side, though, (like me, at the time) try putting some pillows behind your back to prop yourself up a little. Lying on a couch with your back against the couch’s back can also work.
Try to keep your leg elevated as much as possible. If you have a desk job, find something to prop your leg up on to keep it in line with your hip while you work. Doing this will prevent swelling in the knee and keep the pain down.
Even if you’re on painkillers and don’t feel any pain in the knee, avoid putting pressure on it. Don’t try to walk on it at all. When you walk using cruches, try to swing the injured leg forward over the ground instead of putting it on the ground to take a step.
The worst part for me wasn’t even the pain of the dislocation, but the pain from my thigh muscle as it atrophied do to disuse. The pain is similar to a severe cramp, but it can last for hours a day and go on for weeks. I later learned that this atrophy shouldn’t have happened at all. To prevent it, the leg should only be immobized for about 3 weeks. If, after a few weeks in a brace, you start to feel cramping pain, talk to your doctor or physical therapist. The brace can be taken off so you can move your leg a little. I didn’t know this at the time and now I have one thigh that’s smaller than the other.
Recovery time for a dislocated knee is usually between one to three months. In fact, a few weeks after my injury, a classmate of mine also suffered a dislocated knee while playing sports. Because her dislocation was less severe than mine, though, she recovered before I did. It all depends on the degree of injury and how well you take care of the knee.
Once your knee is more or less healed, you’ll probably need at least a little physical therapy before you can walk normally again. The therapy exersizes will be aimed at strengthening the muscles and ligaments that support the knee. During my therapy, I did mostly leg raises and work on an exersize bike, which is typical for this kind of injury. The therapist will also give you exersizes to do at home. Do them! If you don’t, you’ll only draw out your recovery time.
While some people with dislocated knees continue to have pain and weakness in the knee for a lifetime, many others recover with almost no problems. My knee was a little weak for a number of years after the injury and I assumed it would always be. Now, 11 years later, it’s almost as strong as my other knee. I suspect this is because I do a lot of walking, which keeps the knee in shape. If your knee still feels weak and achy well after it’s healed, try a little exersize in order to strengthen it. Avoid jogging, though, and opt for something low-impact like swimming or bike riding. If you want to take up a sport after your injury, check with your physical therapist to be sure the sport won’t damage your knee.
Take care of yourself and be gentle with your dislocated knee during your recovery time, and you’ll most likely recover with few lasting problems.