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Knee Dislocation Surgery Treatment & Management

  • Author: John R Green III, MD; Chief Editor: Thomas M DeBerardino, MD  more...
Updated: Jun 10, 2016

Approach Considerations

Emergency vascular surgery is indicated for limbs that are dysvascular after reduction. For indications for surgical repair of ligament avulsions, see Surgical Therapy.

Nonsurgical management is recommended in patients who have low functional demands or cannot cooperate with postoperative rehabilitation, such as those with significant closed head injuries (see Medical Therapy).

Knee arthroscopy is contraindicated within 2 weeks of knee dislocations because capsular tears cause fluid extravasations into the leg that may result in compartment syndrome (see Surgical Therapy).


Medical Therapy


After evaluation, closed reduction should be performed expeditiously. Reduction is performed by stabilizing the distal femur and applying longitudinal traction on the tibia and reversing the direction of the dislocation. The knee should reduce easily with a satisfactory clunk. Neither the physician nor the assistant should apply any pressure over the popliteal fossa during the reduction, to lessen the risk of additional injury to the popliteal artery.

A medial skin furrow is indicative of a posterior lateral dislocation, with the medial femoral condyle buttonholed through the capsule or extensor mechanism.[20] This is usually irreducible by closed means. Gentle longitudinal traction should be applied. If the furrow appears to deepen with traction, an open reduction should be performed promptly. After reduction, the knee should be immobilized in 15-20° of flexion in a knee immobilizer. A Jones dressing can be applied after arteriogram.

Postreduction assessment

After reduction, vascular and neurologic status should be recorded again. Repeat anteroposterior (AP) and lateral radiographs are obtained to confirm reduction. If the limb is dysvascular, an emergency vascular surgery consultation should be obtained. If the limb appears well perfused, then arteriography is recommended.[21, 22, 15, 23]

The role of noninvasive Doppler studies has been controversial.[16] Occult intimal injury to the popliteal artery with initially normal pulses has been reported.[22] The artery later underwent thrombosis with acute vascular insufficiency. The authors strongly recommend that arteriography be performed on all patients with knee dislocations, unless they have a dysvascular limb, in which case emergency vascular surgery is indicated.[24, 25, 26] Best results are obtained if vascular repair is performed within 6-8 hours of the time of injury. Vascular repairs within 6 hours still have resulted in an 11% amputation rate. Vascular repair after 8 hours resulted in an 86% amputation rate.

AP and lateral radiographs should be repeated in the first week to confirm reduction. The authors generally obtain these radiographs approximately 3 days post injury, after the knee is placed in a hinged knee brace locked in extension. The films should be scrutinized for tibial subluxation, particularly in the posterior direction. If subluxation is present, external fixation should be considered.

Evaluation of knee ligamentous injury

Although many ligament injuries can be deduced from the mechanism of injury and direction of dislocation, stability is best determined with physical examination.[27] However, it is very difficult to perform a good examination acutely because of the swelling and pain of the injury.[28]

Given that many dislocations are associated with other injuries in motor vehicle accidents, opportunities are often available to examine the knee with the patient under anesthesia in the operating room for another procedure (see the first image below). Immediate diagnosis is not necessary, because ligament surgery ideally is performed on an elective basis. MRI can be used to determine the extent and location of ligament disruption, meniscal tears, and subtle injuries to the bone (see the second image below). The authors perform MRI in all patients on an elective basis within the first week after injury.

Knee dislocations. Examination under anesthesia re Knee dislocations. Examination under anesthesia revealing recurvatum and lateral ecchymosis.
Knee dislocations. MRI showing significant disrupt Knee dislocations. MRI showing significant disruption medially and laterally with tibial bone bruise.

It is important to stress to the patient and the family that a knee dislocation is a devastating injury and that the knee is unlikely to be normal again, regardless of treatment. Knees that have dislocated are at risk for significant knee stiffness, chronic pain, arthrosis, and instability.

Nonsurgical management

Nonsurgical management is recommended in patients who have low functional demands or cannot cooperate with postoperative rehabilitation (eg, patients with significant closed head injuries). These patients can initially be treated with a knee immobilizer and Jones dressing and, when swelling diminishes, converted to a hinged knee brace locked in extension. The brace can be unlocked when good quadriceps control is achieved.

Rehabilitation continues to maintain range of motion (ROM), emphasizing extension.[12] If tolerated, gentle active and active-assisted flexion is performed in the prone position for 2 months to minimize posterior tibial sag. Strengthening begins with isometric hamstring and quadriceps cocontraction and progresses to isotonic exercises.


Surgical Therapy

Knee arthroscopy is contraindicated within 2 weeks of knee dislocations because capsular tears cause fluid extravasations into the leg that may result in compartment syndrome. Knee arthroscopy can be performed safely after 2 weeks with low pressures (gravity) only and careful monitoring of the leg.

Surgical options

Acute repair can be performed within weeks of injury, and direct repair of ligament avulsions may lead to better results than reconstructive procedures. MRI helps determine where the tear is located and which tears are repairable.

Generally, posterolateral corner injuries are repaired acutely because reconstructions are less successful.[29] Midsubstance tears of the medial collateral ligament (MCL) are not repaired acutely, because a high percentage may heal with conservative treatment. Midsubstance tears of the anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and the posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) are usually reconstructed later.

MCL and lateral colalteral ligament (LCL) avulsions can be repaired primarily with suture or screws with a soft-tissue washer if an avulsion from the origin or insertion is present. ACL and PCL avulsions from their femoral or tibial origins can be repaired primarily in a similar fashion, but midsubstance tears should not be repaired primarily. Meniscal tears can also be addressed with primary repair to the capsule, with or without partial meniscectomy.

Discussion continues on which type of graft is best. Because so few clinical series of knee dislocations have been published, and such small numbers of patients have been reported, scientific data are insufficient to recommend one graft type over another.

Because of the extent of trauma to a dislocated knee, the authors have been reluctant to harvest tissue from the same knee. The authors recommend patellar tendon allograft, which can be split to perform both ACL and PCL reconstruction with exposure to a single donor. In those patients who are uncomfortable with cadaver tissue, the authors recommend harvesting contralateral central third quadriceps and patellar tendon for PCL and ACL reconstruction, respectively.

Timing of surgery

Ideally, ligament repair should be performed within 3 weeks after injury because scar formation makes later operations more difficult. It is prudent to delay surgical intervention until the skin and soft tissues have recovered from the initial insult (usually 1-2 weeks later). Rehabilitation should begin as though patients were going to be treated nonoperatively.

Timing of ligament reconstruction is somewhat controversial, with some surgeons advocating early reconstruction. Delayed reconstruction is often preferred to allow rehabilitation of the knee and to increase the range of motion preoperatively; if the patient complains of knee instability, then reconstruction of the ACL, PCL, and MCL can be performed. Again, the reconstruction of the ligaments can be performed with autografts, allografts, or a combination of both.[10, 9, 11] Generally, all the ligament reconstructions are performed in one operation; staged operations have not demonstrated superior results.[30, 31] Delayed reconstruction is an option for patients who may not be candidates for acute repair.

Repair sequence is controversial. Some advocate first reconstructing the PCL and repairing the posterolateral corner. Then, at a later time, the ACL can be reconstructed, if necessary. Some believe that posterolateral corner repairs should not be performed without simultaneous PCL reconstruction. Most surgeons favor early posterolateral corner repair since repairs have better results than late reconstructions.

The authors advocate delayed ligament surgery on those patients who do not have a posterolateral corner injury. In patients with posterolateral corner tears and significant posterior sag on lateral radiograph in a hinged knee brace locked in full extension, the authors reconstruct the PCL at the time of the posterolateral corner repair. Rehabilitation generally takes longer than that for a single or double ligament tear to the knee because of the severity of the injury. The authors have found that most patients are ready for cruciate ligament reconstruction by 3 months.

Operative details

Preoperative considerations

Before any surgical intervention for ligament repair or reconstruction, ensure that the skin condition is optimized. Any abrasions or lacerations should receive local wound care. Consider a plastic surgery consultation in injuries with tissue loss. If necessary, delay surgery until the skin is healed. An operative strategy based on the surgeon's experience and preference is critical to optimize results and decrease complications.[32]  There are advocates of many different sequences and techniques, but few data to allow objective comparison of results.

Intraoperative considerations

The authors prefer an acute repair of the posterolateral corner. The peroneal nerve is identified at the fibular neck and traced proximally, so that it can be protected throughout the surgery. After identifying the location of injury of each of the posterolateral structures, repair proceeds from deep to superficial.

Repairing or reconstructing the popliteus tendon is important. The popliteus tendon is usually torn from its femoral attachment or midsubstance and can be repaired with nonabsorbable suture, with or without a suture anchor. The lateral capsule is often peeled off the tibia and can be repaired with transosseous sutures or suture anchors approximately 1 cm below the joint line. The arcuate complex, LCL, and biceps femoris can be repaired as a unit if avulsed together off the fibular head. They can be repaired safely together or separately through drill holes in the fibular head if the peroneal nerve is protected. The most superficial structure, the iliotibial band (ITB), is repaired last.

The wound is closed over a small Hemovac drain, which is removed the following day.


Postoperative Care

An important aspect of knee dislocation surgery is postoperative rehabilitation.[33] After a posterolateral corner repair, the knee is placed in a Jones dressing and the knee brace is locked at 30° for 2 weeks to promote wound healing and to minimize stress on the peroneal nerve and popliteal artery. Active quadriceps exercises are begun immediately.

Early protected range of motion is important to prevent arthrofibrosis.[33] When both cruciates are torn, knee flexion is performed in the prone position to minimize the posterior tibial sag.



Complications of knee dislocation include the following[20, 21] :

  • Popliteal artery injury
  • Peroneal nerve injury
  • Knee instability
  • Knee arthrosis
  • Knee stiffness
  • Chronic pain

After surgical intervention, complications include graft failure, infection, incisional dehiscence, knee arthrofibrosis, and the need for future surgery or knee manipulations. In a 2014 study, Whelan et al found posterior cruciate ligament reconstruction to be an independent risk factor for the development of heterotopic ossification after knee dislocation surgery.[34]

Contributor Information and Disclosures

John R Green III, MD Associate Professor, Department of Orthopaedics and Sports Medicine, Chief of Sports Medicine, University of Washington Medical Center

John R Green III, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy Association of North America, Southern Medical Association, Southern Orthopaedic Association, Washington State Medical Association, American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American College of Sports Medicine, American College of Surgeons

Disclosure: Received educational program support from Pacific Medical for none.


Brett D Owens, MD Professor of Surgery, F Edward Hebert School of Medicine, Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences; Assistant Professor of Orthopedic Surgery, Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center, Paul L Foster School of Medicine; Chief of Orthopedic Surgery, Keller Army Hospital

Brett D Owens, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy Association of North America, Orthopaedic Trauma Association, Society of Military Orthopaedic Surgeons

Disclosure: Received consulting fee from Musculoskeletal Transplant Foundation for consulting; Received consulting fee from Johnson & Johnson (MITEK) for consulting; Received royalty from SLACK Publishing for other; Received salary from American Journal of Sports Medicine for employment.

Cambize Shahrdar, MD Gratis Professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Louisiana State University School of Medicine in Shreveport; Consulting Surgeon, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, The Orthopedic Clinic

Cambize Shahrdar, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Association of Hip and Knee Surgeons

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.

Specialty Editor Board

Francisco Talavera, PharmD, PhD Adjunct Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Pharmacy; Editor-in-Chief, Medscape Drug Reference

Disclosure: Received salary from Medscape for employment. for: Medscape.

Chief Editor

Thomas M DeBerardino, MD Associate Professor, Department of Orthopedic Surgery, Consulting Surgeon, Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy and Reconstruction of the Knee, Hip and Shoulder, Team Physician, Orthopedic Consultant to UConn Department of Athletics, University of Connecticut Health Center

Thomas M DeBerardino, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Association, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine

Disclosure: Serve(d) as a director, officer, partner, employee, advisor, consultant or trustee for: Arthrex, Inc.; Ivy Sports Medicine; MTF; Aesculap; The Foundry, Cotera; ABMT<br/>Received research grant from: Histogenics; Cotera; Arthrex.

Additional Contributors

Robert D Bronstein, MD Associate Professor, Department of Orthopedics, Division of Athletic Medicine, University of Rochester School of Medicine

Robert D Bronstein, MD is a member of the following medical societies: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, Arthroscopy Association of North America, Medical Society of the State of New York

Disclosure: Nothing to disclose.


The authors and editors would like to acknowledge Margaret L Olmedo, MD, for the contributions made to this article.

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Knee dislocations. Lateral radiograph of anterior knee dislocation.
Knee dislocations. MRI showing significant disruption medially and laterally with tibial bone bruise.
Knee dislocations. Examination under anesthesia revealing recurvatum and lateral ecchymosis.
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