Car accidents are one of the most common reasons for knee pain and injuries. To determine if a knee injury is serious enough to warrant a visit to the emergency room or hospital depends on several factors:
- How much pain you’re in
- How unstable the joint is (the knee buckles when trying to stand)
- How much swelling or bruising is present
- How deformed the knee appears
- If there is loss of sensation or the foot becomes cold
- If there is limping or an inability to move the knee
Even if you don’t think you were seriously injured in a crash, it is always better to see a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment options.
What Kind of Knee Injuries Can Happen Due to an Accident?
Multiple ligaments stabilize and bind the knee joint together. A knee sprain occurs when one or more of these ligaments are injured.
The ACL and PCL (anterior and posterior cruciate ligaments) cross each other and are located inside the knee. These ligaments affect forward and backward movement. A PCL tear is commonly referred to as “dashboard knee”. This type of injury happens when a driver or passenger’s knee or shin slams into the car dashboard.
The LCL and MCL (lateral and medial collateral ligaments) hold the joint in place so it doesn’t slide from side to side.
A ligament sprain is graded based on the severity of the stretch or tear of the ligament fibers and how much instability results from that:
- Grade 1 knee sprains are painful but the ligaments aren’t torn and there is no instability.
- Grade 2 knee sprains feature one or more partially torn ligaments and mild instability.
- Grade 3 knee sprains mean one or more ligaments are completely torn and the knee is unstable.
Tendons and muscles around the knee affect movement and flexibility. When these are hyperflexed or hyperextended, it can lead to pain around the outside of the knee. One of the most commonly injured knee tendons is the patellar tendon, which stretches from the bottom kneecap to the front of the tibia or shin bone.
In and around the knee are bursas, fluid-filled sacs that act as shock absorbers. They help minimize friction between soft tissues like muscles and tendons. The knee joint features two important bursas, one above the knee cap (patella bone) and one below the joint near the front of the shin (tibia bone). Knee bursitis occurs when a bursa becomes irritated, inflamed, or infected. A car accident is certainly one way this can happen, the force of the wreck overwhelming the knee’s shock absorbers.
The inside of the knee has two crescent-shaped pieces of cartilage called menisci that sit on top of the tibia and cushion the femur (thigh bone). When a meniscus is torn or acutely injured, it can be quite painful. Learn more about meniscus tears, symptoms, and treatments in a previous blog post that we did.
Knee Joint Dislocation
A dislocated knee is a rare injury caused by high impact events like motor vehicle accidents. The damage is often severe and affects multiple parts of the knee, from torn blood vessels and severed nerves to twisted muscles and strained tendons. Dislocation of the knee joint will require immediate emergency treatment or surgical repair.
The patella (kneecap) can be dislocated to the side of the knee. This is referred to as patellar dislocation. It is a painful but non-life-threatening injury. A doctor can typically treat it by pushing it back into place, splinting the leg, and recommending physical therapy.
In a car accident, especially traumatic ones like head-on collisions or when a vehicle is t-boned, there’s a chance a person may suffer a direct blow to the knee. Fractures to the kneecap or surrounding leg bones are serious injuries that will take time to heal.
Common Knee Injury Symptoms and Signs
Most knee injuries happen when the joint twists or bends at an angle it was not designed to do. But in high-speed/high-impact events like car crashes are more likely to cause disruptive injuries to the knee in multiple places.
An acute knee injury will most likely feature knee pain and swelling. Here are the main symptoms of knee injury to watch out for:
- Clicking or popping sounds
- Difficulty bearing weight
- Difficulty bending
- Feeling loose or unstable
- Locking up
Who Should You See to Treat a Knee Injury?
If your knee was injured in a car accident, you should see an emergency medicine specialist or your primary care doctor depending on how severe the injury looks and feels. In most cases, a primary care provider can provide treatment. A severe knee injury, however, may require you to be referred to an orthopedist or orthopedic surgeon, as well as physical therapists, occupational therapists, or rehabilitation specialists.
How Are Knee Injuries Diagnosed?
The medical professional treating your knee injury will review your medical history, do a physical examination, and may even order X-rays, CT scans, or MRIs. X-rays and CT scans are used to assess knee bone injuries, while MRIs are used to evaluate soft-tissue damage. If a doctor suspects there is ligament or cartilage damage, they may perform knee-bending tests. By gently bending and twisting the knee, they can isolate which specific soft tissues have been damaged.
Medical Treatment for a Knee Injury
Serious knee injuries require prompt medical care. After a car accident, a knee injury will most like be treated using immobilization, emergency surgery, orthopedic surgery, and/or RICE therapy.
After a traumatic injury to the knee, immobilization keeps the joint from moving and decreases the chance of sustaining a further injury. Orthopedic knee immobilizers, splints, or leg braces can help stabilize the knee and let the injured tissue rest.
In a severe car accident in which multiple parts of the knee are damaged or crushed, emergency surgery may be needed. Extensive injuries (torn knee ligaments, torn meniscus, unstable knee joint, decreased range of motion, broken knee bone, etc.) will require a consultation with an orthopedic surgeon. They will likely recommend staying off the leg by using a wheelchair or crutches.
Most knee surgery is done via arthroscopy. During the procedure, small punctures are made into the knee to insert surgical instruments. A tiny camera is used to allow the surgeon to see the inside of the knee. Arthroscopic surgery is often delayed after an acute knee injury to allow some of the initial inflammation to fade.
Home remedies for treating a knee injury work best for sprains and strains. RICE therapy (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) combined with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medicines like ibuprofen or naproxen can help reduce the pain and swelling.
How Long Does It Take a Knee Injury to Heal?
The recovery time for a knee injury depends on the type and severity of the damage. The more damage there is, the longer the healing process will take. Sprains and strains can take one to two weeks to heal. A knee injury that requires surgery can take anywhere between one and three months to heal. Major traumatic injuries to the knee can take up to a year.
For a smooth recovery, follow your doctor’s instructions to rest, immobilize, stay off your feet, and/or avoid certain exercises or movements that could aggravate your knee injury. Physical therapy can help speed up the recovery time.
Most injured victims regain most or full range of knee motion. Severe knee injuries, however, can cause irreversible damage such as chronic pain, limping, and blood vessel injuries.
Talk to a Serious Injury Attorney
Damage to the knee caused by a car accident is a serious bodily injury. Our Atlanta attorneys and personal injury team are here to help you negotiate with the insurance company and make sure your medical bills are covered, even if you don’t have health insurance.
As part of our affordable legal services, we offer our Zero Fee Guarantee — you don’t pay us if we don’t successfully settle your case. Contact our car accident lawyers today for a free consultation to get started on your case. You deserve peace of mind and financial compensation if your car accident injuries were caused by someone else’s negligence.