Everything You Need to Know About Car Accident Knee Injuries

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Key Points:

  • The sudden impact of a car accident can fracture or dislocate your kneecap, twist and tear your ligaments or cartilage, and cause other serious injuries. Knee injuries are not only painful but can also cause major physical challenges that affect your life.
  • Depending on the type of injury, some people may experience immediate pain, while others develop symptoms weeks or months after the crash.
  • If your knee is injured in a car accident because of someone else’s negligence, their insurance company should compensate you for all your losses, including medical bills, physical therapy, lost wages and earning capacity, pain and suffering, and lifestyle changes.

As traffic congestion and accidents on US roadways have risen, car manufacturers have made huge strides in improving the safety features that protect drivers. While seat belts and front and side airbag features are designed to prevent life-threatening injuries to the upper body, your lower body has far less protection in a car accident.

Because of your sitting position in the car, there is a high likelihood of injuring your knees if you are rear-ended or your car rolls over. Though the structure and rigidity of dashboards and consoles vary, most can cause damage when your knees are forced against them, and the degree of injury often depends on the strength of the impact.

Knee injuries may not be as devastating as some upper-body injuries, but the damage can still be painful, costly, and life-changing. This guide will help you understand what type of knee injuries you may suffer in a car accident and how you should be compensated for those injuries.

Why Knee Injuries Are Complicated

The knee is your body’s largest joint and allows you to flex and bend your leg while you walk, run, climb, and perform other movements. A complicated intersection of bones, muscles, tendons, ligaments, and cartilage forms your knee and makes those movements possible.

The force generated from a car accident can fracture or dislocate your kneecap, twist and tear your ligaments or cartilage, or cause serious bruising and swelling. Depending on the type of injury, some people may experience excruciating pain immediately after the crash, while others experience symptoms weeks or months later.

Knee injuries are not only painful but can cause major physical challenges, affecting your ability to exercise or even perform everyday tasks, such as running errands and caring for your children. Joint injuries often worsen over time, which can cause long-term debilitation and diminished quality of life.   

Your knee joins together multiple bones in your leg, and a forceful car collision can cause trauma to these bones and the surrounding parts.

Common skeletal injuries to the knee include the following:

Fractured patella. Your patella, or kneecap, is the flat, moveable bone situated in the front of your knee that protects the surface of the joint. In a high-speed collision, your knee may crash against the dashboard with enough force to fracture your patella.

If your patella is fractured, you will experience extreme pain and swelling and find it difficult, if not impossible, to put any weight on your leg. If you have these symptoms, you should go to the hospital immediately so that a doctor can examine your knee and take X-rays.

In cases where the fracture has not moved the kneecap out of place, you may only need to wear a cast for several weeks. However, when the pieces of bone are out of place, surgery is typically needed to repair the damage. A fractured patella usually takes six to eight weeks to heal, though it may be painful and swollen for months afterward.

Your doctor will likely recommend “RICE” therapy while you recover, which involves:

  1. Resting your knee.
  2. Icing your knee to reduce pain and inflammation.
  3. Applying compression bandages to support your knee and reduce swelling.
  4. Elevating your knee to reduce swelling.

Dislocation. Sometimes the impact of a collision causes the patella to dislocate, or slide out of place. In less severe cases, the patella may only partially dislocate, then slide back to its original position. If this happens, you may experience pain, swelling, stiffness, and the feeling that your kneecap has moved to the side.

When the patella is fully dislocated, it does not return to place on its own, and you may feel severe pain, stiffness, and swelling. In addition, your knee will look distorted, and you will be unable to walk or stand.

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Whether the dislocation is partial or total, you will need X-rays and possibly an MRI to ensure that surrounding ligaments, cartilage, and tendons are aligned and undamaged. Most dislocations take at least six weeks to heal. If the injury is minor, your doctor may recommend physical therapy, RICE therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, crutches, and/or a knee brace to help the injury heal on its own.

Most people do not need surgery for a first-time dislocation, but you may need surgery if your injury is severe or there is a high risk of future dislocations. Because surgery can increase the risk of other knee problems, such as arthritis, regular strength exercise and physical therapy are often recommended.

Tibial plateau fracture. The tibia, or shinbone, is the large bone below the knee, and the tibial plateau is part of the knee joint that supports your weight as you move. Ligaments and tendons around the knee connect to the tibial plateau. In a tibial plateau fracture, which can happen when your leg is crushed against the inside of your car during a crash, this bone breaks and often causes injuries to the tendons, ligaments, muscles, and cartilage in the knee.

X-rays, CT scans, and MRIs are typically used to assess the location and severity of the injury. Small fractures that do not have alignment problems may not need surgery to heal. In cases where the bone pieces are displaced, unstable, or sticking out the skin, you will likely need surgery.

If you have a tibial plateau fracture, you are also at risk for compartment syndrome, which occurs when there is too much pressure for the blood and oxygen to circulate. Because compartment syndrome can cause the leg muscles to die, emergency surgery is needed to treat this problem.

Depending on the injury, this type of fracture can take three to four months to heal, and physical therapy for range of motion is usually started after six weeks. If the fracture does not heal properly, you are at high risk for developing arthritis.

Posttraumatic osteoarthritis. Cartilage prevents your bones from rubbing together at the joints, and osteoarthritis occurs when this cartilage erodes over time, causing pain and inflammation. Posttraumatic osteoarthritis can develop when an injury damages the cartilage and/or bone, which alters the joint’s mechanics and makes it wear out more rapidly.

Though injuries that cause this type of trauma are common in car accidents, posttraumatic osteoarthritis can remain undetected until the symptoms of deterioration build up. Typically, you may only experience stiffness and minor pain in the affected joint at first, then gradually notice increasing pain, stiffness, swelling, and instability. Eventually, you will lose flexibility and motion range and feel the sensation of your bones rubbing together. When this happens in the knee, it may be difficult to walk or run.

To diagnose posttraumatic osteoarthritis, your doctor will perform a physical exam and possibly order X-rays, a CT scan, or an MRI. Though arthritis cannot be cured, it can be improved through weight loss, low-impact stretching exercises, strength training of the muscles surrounding the joint, anti-inflammatory medication, and cortisone injections.

After your arthritis progresses to a certain point, these measures may not be enough to treat your pain and help your movement. Surgical options can provide relief by reconstructing or replacing worn-out joint surfaces.

Muscular Injuries Around the Knee

In addition to bone injuries, the sudden jolt of a car accident can cause injuries to the soft tissue in your knee. Trauma can strain the tendons that connect your knee muscles to the bones or to the muscle itself. Muscle strains, or pulled muscles, happen when a muscle is torn or overstretched.

Symptoms of muscle strain may include pain, bruising, swelling, muscle spasms, and decreased range of motion. Mild or moderate muscle strains around the knee can be treated at home with RICE therapy and anti-inflammatory medications and typically heal within a few weeks. More severe strains (e.g., a ruptured tendon) may require surgery and physical therapy and take several months to heal.

Cartilage Injuries

Inside your knee are two C-shaped pieces of cartilage that provide padding between your tibia and femur. These pieces, known as the medial meniscus and lateral meniscus, protect the joint from friction caused by walking, running, or other movements.

A car accident may cause your knee joint to forcefully twist or rotate, which can result in a torn meniscus. If you have a torn meniscus, you may experience pain, swelling, stiffness, and problems extending your knee. Your doctor may order a physical exam and an MRI to detect a torn meniscus.

Depending on the type, size, and location of the tear, you may only need RICE therapy and medication to treat the pain while the injury heals on its own. Physical therapy can help strengthen your knee muscles to stabilize the joint.

Some cartilage tears require surgery to repair them. If your injury cannot be completely repaired, the tear may be improved by trimming the meniscus arthroscopically. After surgery, you will likely need physical therapy and exercise to increase strength and stability. Most people can return to routine activity within six weeks after surgery.

Ligament Injuries

The sudden impact of a car collision may cause the ligaments that connect the bones in your knee to become overstretched. When this happens, one or more of your ligaments may tear.

The four main ligaments in your knee include:

  • Medial collateral ligament (MCL), which provides stability to your inner knee.
  • Lateral collateral ligament (LCL), which provides stability to your outer knee.
  • Anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). The ACL in the center of your knee controls rotation and forward movement of the shinbone.
  • Posterior cruciate ligament (PCL). The PCL in the back of your knee controls backward movement of the shinbone.

Collateral ligament tears are typically caused by blunt trauma that pushes the knee sideways, such as when your knee strikes the car console during a crash. The MCL is more commonly injured than the LCL, and a collateral ligament tear will cause your knee to pop and buckle, producing pain and swelling. With MCL tears, pain is felt inside your knee; with LCL tears, the pain may be on the outside.

All types of ligament tears are diagnosed with a physical exam and an MRI. Collateral ligament injuries rarely require surgery and are often treated with RICE therapy, physical therapy, and bracing. If the ligament is torn in a way that makes it difficult to heal or the injury involves other ligaments, surgery may be required.

ACL injuries are common in sports but can also happen when the knee is twisted, overextended, or hit during a car accident. If your ACL is torn, you will likely hear a popping sound and experience pain, swelling, and instability when you try to stand.

The ACL cannot heal on its own, but physical therapy can strengthen the muscles around the knee for better range of motion. For athletes or people with active lifestyles, surgery is usually recommended to repair the ACL. Recovery can take several months.

PCL tears are usually caused by direct impact, such as when the knee suddenly hits the dashboard during a collision and pushes the tibia backward. PCL damage, also known as “dashboard knee,” accounts for approximately 20% of knee ligament injuries. PCL tears have similar symptoms to ACL injuries, which can make them hard to diagnose.

Not all PCL tears require surgery. For partial or less severe PCL tears, treatment may involve RICE therapy, anti-inflammatory medication, and physical therapy. For severe tears or injuries involving other ligaments, surgery is usually required. Recovery time depends on the damage and type of surgery and can take anywhere from three to 12 months.

Other Minor Knee Injuries

When your knee strikes the inside of your car, or when you jam the brake hard trying to avoid a collision, you may suffer bruising, swelling, scrapes, and/or inflammation. Depending on the severity, you should seek immediate medical attention to rule out serious injuries to your knee because bruising and swelling may be a sign of broken bones or soft tissue strains.

For minor bruising, swelling, and inflammation, your symptoms should improve after a few days of RICE therapy and anti-inflammatory medication. If your symptoms do not improve or the pain worsens, you should see a doctor for further examination.

Lifestyle Changes Caused By Knee Injuries

If your knee is injured in a car accident, you may suffer short- or long-term pain and complications that make it difficult to get around and engage in your normal activities. Your ability to walk, run, climb, work out, or play sports may be limited, either temporarily or permanently.

Because many traumatic injuries can cause the knee joint to deteriorate, these difficulties may increase over time. In addition, certain types of injuries, such as dislocation or ligament tears, may put you at risk for future knee injuries.

When your everyday life is affected by pain and mobility challenges, you may experience financial and emotional difficulties as well. You may be faced with costly bills for medical and rehabilitative treatment. You may be unable to meet the physical demands of your job, resulting in lost wages or having to take a low-paying position. You also may not be able to run around in the backyard with your kids or participate in activities you love.

Insurance Companies Should Pay for Car Accident Knee Injuries

If your knee is injured in a car accident because of someone else’s negligence, their insurance company should compensate you for all your losses, financial and otherwise. The payment you receive should cover medical bills, physical therapy, lost wages and earning capacity, pain and suffering, and lifestyle changes.

However, insurance companies always look to protect their bottom lines and may not offer a settlement that fully compensates you for your injury. And once you accept a settlement offer, you waive your right to future compensation.

Hiring an experienced personal injury lawyer can help ensure that you get the payment you deserve. Call The Millar Law Firm today at (770) 400-0000 or contact us online to set up a free consultation with one of our attorneys. 

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