Exploring a common knee overuse injury affecting athletes.
Medically referred to as patellar tendonitis, the term “jumper’s knee” was first described in 1973 by Dr. Martin Blazina, a sports medicine pioneer. He placed significant research focus on patella-femoral issues in athletes. Jumper’s knee is characterized by an overload of functional stress on and subsequent inflammation of the tendon that connects the kneecap to the shin bone – known as the patellar tendon.
A common tendon problem, jumper’s knee, affects up to 20 percent of jumping athletes today. The condition is most frequently seen in those who engage in sports such as basketball, volleyball, high-jump, and long-jump. However, it can also present in non-jumping athletes, including soccer players and some weightlifters and cyclists in rarer cases. As it turns out, Dr. Blazina’s previous work in the ’70s was instrumental in carving a path for orthopedic doctors to help the many athletes affected by patellar tendinopathy over the past 40+ years.
As a sports-related injury, jumper’s knee is typically the result of knee joint overuse, especially for those who repeatedly land from a jump onto a hard surface – think NBA stars LeBron James or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Of interest to note from the research on this tendon condition is that it appears to be the surface onto which the jumper lands that causes the most significant mechanical stress to the knee and not the action of jumping itself. Beyond the type of sport played, additional jumper’s knee risk factors for athletes include:
- Gender (jumper’s knee is more common in male athletes),
- Higher body weight,
- Anatomical abnormalities of the knee (bow-leggedness or knock-knees),
- Increased knee angle,
- Limbs that aren’t the same length,
- Abnormally low or high kneecap position.
In addition to the above-referenced risk factors for patellar tendinopathy, athletes affected by it may have poorer quadriceps and hamstring flexibility than those who don’t develop the condition. The ability to jump vertically and the landing technique an athlete employs can also play a pivotal role in influencing the risk for jumper’s knee.
Common symptoms of jumper’s knee include a gradual onset of pain just below the kneecap, tenderness, and swelling around the kneecap, especially after extended periods of jumping, running, or walking. The precise location of the knee pain provides clues to the diagnosing orthopedic physician that the issue is patellar tendinopathy or jumper’s knee. Because the pain from this condition results from knee joint overuse and tends to develop over time, it is often difficult for an athlete to pinpoint a specific event during which the injury occurred.
Jumper’s knee is classified into four stages. During the first stage, the athlete experiences pain only after the offending activity but doesn’t experience functional impairment of the knee. In the second stage, the athlete experiences pain in the knee both during and after the action but can still perform their sport satisfactorily. The third stage of jumper’s knee is characterized by a prolonged period of pain during and after the activity, with satisfactory performance of the sport becoming increasingly more difficult. Ultimately, jumper’s knee weakens the patellar tendon and, if left untreated, can lead to a tear in the tendon that requires surgery to repair it, which is stage 4. For this reason (and plenty of others), jumper’s knee is best diagnosed, monitored, and treated by an orthopedic professional specializing in conditions affecting the knee.
For anyone experiencing the painful symptoms associated with jumper’s knee, it is crucial to halt the offending activity and use the R.I.C.E. method – Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation – to treat it while awaiting consultation and further instruction from a qualified orthopedic professional. The return-to-play prognosis for athletes in stages 3 or 4 of jumper’s knee isn’t as high as those in stages 1 or 2. Therefore, early identification, evaluation, and treatment are critical. When managed early, most athletes respond quite well to conservative treatment options for jumper’s knee, and the prognosis for a return to the hardwood or the field is excellent.