Bolts, & Duct Tape
The knee joint is a large and complex joint.
In fact, the human knee joint is very interesting because humans
are the only animals to stand with an erect posture and bear their
body weight through the fully extended knee joint. While most people
mistakenly believe the knee is a simple hinge joint this is not
true, there is actually a large amount of rotational movement along
with the traditional front-back motion. With bones, ligaments, and
other body parts all contributing to the wide range of motion and
the solid stability the knee joint can be broken down into its constituent
parts and described but to fully understand the interactions of
those parts a holistic view is necessary. The following explanation
of the physiology of the knee will consist of three main categories:
Bones of the Knee, The Menisci and Cartilage of the Knee, and The
Ligaments, Capsule, and Synovial Membrane of the Knee. Within each
of those categories the names, locations, and various attachments
will be listed and referenced to pictures in the Physiology
PhotoGallery. Also in each category, a description of the function
of the knee will be given. Once the basic physiology is stated there
will be a section looking at how the knee and all its parts might
act together which will be followed by a Frequently Asked Questions
area that will hopefully answer many questions that may come up
along the way or in your own personal research.
So let's get started!!!
Bones of the Knee
There are four bones involved with the knee
joint: femur, patella, tibia, and fibula. Of these the femur and
tibia are the most important to remember when dealing with the knee
although the other two have their uses. Starting from the top of
the knee and moving down there is the femur (thigh bone), patella
(knee cap), tibia (shin bone), and the fibula.
The femur is the longest and the strongest bone in the body and
the distal end is the end that is involved in the knee joint. At
the distal end the femur splits into two prominences called condyles
(photogallery). These condyles are known as the medial condyle and
the lateral condyle. Each of these two condyles also has an anterior,
lateral, posterior, and medial aspect (side). So for instance if
someone were talking about the lateral condyle (the condyle furthest
to the outside) and they wanted to describe some defect on the inside
of that condyle they would refer to the area as the medial aspect
of the the lateral condyle. Between the condyles there is a structure
known as the trochlea which is just the result of there being space
between the condyles.
The patella, commonly known as the knee cap,
is a sesamoid bone that has two facets (photogallery) on the posterior
aspect which interact with the femoral condyles fitting into an
area known as the femoral trochlea. There is also an area for the
patella tendon to attach on the posterior aspect of the distal end
of the bone.
This is a very important bone when describing the knee
because it has so many things attached to it and is therefore crucial
to proper joint function in so many ways. In relation to the knee
the proximal end is the one referred to. Of primary importance are
the two condylar notches located on the very top of the tibia into
which the femoral condyles somewhat fit. These condylar notches
are shallow, cup shaped depressions of roughly equal width but with
the medial notch being longer than the lateral (important for the
screw-home mechanism!). Due to fact that there is some space between
the condylar notches and their upward slope towards each other,
there is a space created called the intercondylar area. In this
area, from the front to the rear, there is the anterior intercondylar
area, lateral intercondylar tubercule, medial intercondylar tubercule,
intercondylar eminence, and the posterior intercondylar area (photogallery).
The purpose of all these different tibial features will become apparent
The primary function in the knee of the fibula is the
attachement of ligaments and tendons. It is located laterally next
to the tibia and is shorter and thinner than the tibia.
The Menisci and
Cartilage of the Knee
The menisci and cartilage are the components
of the knee that are most involved in cushioning and articulation
of the knee joint. Without these pieces the knee would and does
rapidly grind itself into painful uselessness. Both the menisci
and the cartilage are acellular materials composed primarily of
There are two menisci in each knee joint, one in the
lateral condylar notch and one in the medial condylar notch, summing
to a total of four menisci. Both menisci are triangular in cross-section
and they line the tibial-femoral articulating surfaces acting as
cushions that fill in the imperfect fit between the femoral condyles
and the tibial condylar notches. The medial meniscus is half-moon
shaped while the lateral meniscus is almost a closed circle. Also,
both menisci are attached to the tibia at both the proximal and
distal ends of their structures. Along the outer rim of the menisci,
the part of the triangle that is facing outwards from the knee joint,
there is a tendonous attachment known as the the coronary ligaments
that is flexible and there is also a limited vasular supply which
extends approximately 15-35% into the menisci. This vacular supply
allows for limited healing but damage further in on the menisci
almost never heals. Compared to other primates humans have the largest
relative menisci, probably as a direct result of their extensive
role in the human knee. When thinking about the menisci and their
physical properties it's helpful to think of it kind of like a wedge
shaped piece of rubber curved into a rounded shape and wrapped in
teflon then coated with PAM cooking spray. This gives an idea of
the elastic ability of a meniscus and its low viscosity.
Cartilage in the knee covers the femoral condyles, the
tibial condylar notches, and the patellar facets, the exact areas
that will be moving against one another. A classic description of
cartilage is avascular, aneural, and alymphatic. It regenerates
due to chondrocytes on the bottom layer near the bone that continuously
send new cartilage up to the articulating surface. Because cartilage
has no blood supply the chondrocytes recieve nutrients through diffusion
with the synovial fluid. The average thinkness of cartilage on the
tibia is 2.92 mm, on the femur 1.99 mm, and on the patella 3.33
mm (Ateshian, et. al.), but this can vary depending upon a persons
activity level (more activity=more cartilage) and age (older=less
cartilage). Compared to a menicus, cartilage is very hard and not
very elastic. Just think of taking a thigh and a drumstick from
a piece of a chicken and rubbing the bones against each other, the
ends are hard and slide past one another easily.
Capsule, and Synovial Membrane of the Knee
of the knee provide stability to the hinge motion of the femoraltibial
joint and also allow for some rotational range of motion due to
their flexibility. There are four main ligaments: anterior cruciate
ligament, posterior cruciate ligament, lateral collateral ligament,
and the medial collateral ligament. All ligaments are acellular
and composed almost entirely from collagen. The capsule is more
of a shrink wrap around the knee and the ligaments, it holds everything
in like it was a tight sleeve while the synovial membrane is kind
of like a wall paper to the capsule and secretes various goodies
into the knee joint.
Cruciate Ligament (ACL)
The tibial attachment of the ACL
is in the anterior intercondylar area and from here it extends upwards,
backwards, laterally to attach to the medial aspect of the lateral
femoral condyle(photo gallery). It is about 33 mm long and 11 mm
in diameter with a tensile strength from 2200 N to 2500 N (Chhabra,
et. al. pages 203 and 206). There are two bundles of fibers in the
ACL, anterior and posterior, the anterior are taut in in flexion
and the posterior are taut in extension (cite book). A large part
of the purpose of the ACL is to control the gliding of the tibia
on the femur during extension and flexion. However, another important
function of the ACL is its role in the screw-home mechanism (more
on this later).
Cruciate Ligament (PCL)
in the posterior intercondylar area of the tibia and then travelling
upwards, forwards, and medially to attach on the anterior end of
the lateral aspect of the medial femoral condyle the PCL is usually
38 mm in length and 13 mm in diameter (Chhabra, et. al. page 203)
with a tensile strength higher than that of the ACL but still widely
disputed. The PCL helps prevent hyperextension and hyperflexion
and controls medial mobility of the tibia.
Collateral Ligament (LCL)
This ligament attaches on the lateral aspect of the lateral
femoral condyle (on a structure called an epicondyle) and attaches
to the proximal end of the fibula. This is the main function of
the fibula pertaining to the knee. The LCL looks very much like
a pencil in length and width and acts like a cord providing tension
and strength against varus movement of lower leg. It is relaxed
in flexion and is unlikely to be hurt because it is protected by
the other leg.
Collateral Ligament (MCL)
The MCL is a very important ligament in the knee and
more complex in attachment than the other three ligaments. This
ligament consists of three layers: superficial, deep, and posterior.
By far the largest and most crucial of the three layers the superficial
layer. It is a strong (about twice the tensile strength of the ACL),
flat, triangular band of collagen that arises from the medial femoral
condyle to the medial aspect of the tibia. The base of the triangle
is the line from the femoral attachment to the tibial insertion
with the point oriented along the line of the medial meniscus going
posteriorly. When the knee is flexed the anterior edge of the MCL
is taut and the posterior edge is relaxed. The deep layer is attached
to the capsule and is associated with the medial meniscus, this
is important in relation to MCL/menicus injuries. Finally, the posterior
layer consists of oblique fibers which blend into the posterior
capsule. As the principal protector from valgus forces and rotary
stress and lacking protection of another leg like the LCL benefits
from. In sports such as football or soccer and even in industries
such as mining the MCL is often torn when a force of sufficient
magnitude and energy is applied against the outside of the knee
while the lower leg is planted or fixed. If the knee has a slight
bend and is struck on the lateral side it naturally bends and the
ligaments are not injured but when the leg is hyperextended the
knee cannot unlock in time with the result that the MCL is torn
(I.S. Smillie). Often meniscal tears and ACL ruptures will be associated
with an MCL injury. Interestingly the MCL is the only ligament that
has enough of a vascular supply that it can heal a partial tear
The shrinkwrap sleeve of the knee, the fibrous capsule
is a tough, somewhat elastic covering that orginates just above
the cartilage on the femur and terminates just below the outside
edge of the menisci on the tibia. The MCL is attached to the outside
of the capsule by its deep fibers and the LCL is not attached to
the capsule at all. Both the ACL and PCL are contained within the
capsule. When thinking about the capsule try to imagine a neoprene
sleeve, not only does it keep certain substances in but also keeps
other substances out while providing additional stability to the
This membrane is composed of vacularized connective tissue
that roughly lines the capsule. Its femoral attachment is just below
where the capsule originates and the tibial origin is just above
the capsule attachment. Unlike the capsule, however, the synovial
membrane is not very elastic or resistant to mechanical damage.
The tissue overcomes this lack by being pleated, having extra folds
of membrane that can be extended when the knee joint rotates through
its range of motion. This also has the added benefit of increased
surface area from which to secrete various substances into the joint
space. Secretion of these substances, synovial fluid, is the principal
job of the synovial membrane because it is from this synovial that
much of the cells within the joint derive nutrients and oxygen and
the joint derives its lubrication. The fluid also has some phagocytic
ability that aids in microbial defense and cellular clean up in
the joint. What the synovial fluid does not contain is: red blood
cells, clotting factors, or hemoglobin.
The BIG Picture
Now that basic parts of the knee are established it's time
to look at the knee as a functional whole. When the knee flexes
or extends there is rolling and sliding of the femur over the tibia.
This is possible because the cartilage along with the synovial fluid
create such a low coefficient of friction that it is like ice flowing
over ice. In order for the system to have any stability there are
the ligaments mostly the MCL and LCL protecting against varus and
valgus movement and the ACL, PCL, and geometry of the fit between
the femoral condyles and the tibial condylar notches. But without
the synovial fluid the all the components composed of collagen would
quickly break down from lack of metabolic inputs. Yet the soft membrane
is easily damaged without protection. Enter the capsule, strong
enough for stability yet dense enough to protect the synovial membrane.
What about the menisci in all this? Well the menisci have so many
important functions their roles in the functions of the knee is
saved for last.
1) Weight bearing: both menisci receive
around 50% of the load when in a cushioning role although the lateral
meniscus sometimes bears more.
2) Shock absorbing: cartilage does not like sudden compressive
forces, this damages and degrades cartilage very quickly. The menisci
are able to handle compressive loads much better due to their cross-hatch
construction which allows them to handle loads from multiple axis.
3)Stabilizing: as mentioned before the fit between the condyles
and condylar notches is imperfect, this discrepancy is made up by
the menisci which increase the surface contact area of the femoral
cartilage. This directly correlates with reduced wear and increased
longevity of the articulating surfaces in the knee (Chhabra, et.
al. page 134).
4)Synovial protection: the synovial membrane wraps around
the outside of much of the meniscus and without the meniscus there
the membrane would get sucked into the articulating area of the
joint and pinched.
5)Rotational facilitating: also mentioned before is the fact
that the menisci are primarily attached at their distal and proximal
ends to the tibia. As such they have a tremendous amount of play
along the rest of their unattached length and are able to move as
the femoral condyles either push or pull them. This has direct import
in the screw-home mechanism.
What are the largest
risk factors for knee problems?
What is the screw-home mechanism?
Is the knee structually sound?
How can you tell if there is a tear of a ligament in
Do all injuries require surgery?
What are the uncommon circumstances that could injure
Why are women more susceptible to knee injuries than
How great are the loads on the knee joint?
How is the patella important?
What happens if there is an infection in the knee
joint under the capsule?
Is the knee able to respond to use/disuse?
What is "Dashboard Knee" (I.S. Smillie)?
Why is immunosuppression not necessary in an allogeneic
Does a transplanted ligament regenerate, does is just
wear out, or is it able to last a lifetime without regeneration?
Q)What are the largest risk factors for knee problems?
A)In regards to traumatic knee injuries contact
sports are the number one risk factor. Being overweight and being
out of shape are the two other main risk factors in sustaining a
knee injury, either traumatic or chronic.
Q)What is the screw-home mechanism?
A) This is the name given to the action when
a knee reaches full extension and just as the knee locks into hyperextension
the knee rotates in an outward direction just a few degrees. This
has the effect of putting most of the weight onto the cartilage,
menisci, and bones of the joint while giving a rest to the muscles
of the thigh and calf. What allows for this is that the medial femoral
condyle is slightly curved and the medial condylar notch is slightly
longer than the lateral condylar notch. The ACL and to some extent
the PCL are important in guiding this movement of the bones.
Q) Is the knee structually sound?
A) The knee is actually a pretty resistant
structure and can actually withstand alot of impact either suddenly
and/or chronically if it is in a good orientation which usually
means slightly bent. Condidering the demands placed upon human knee's
day in and day out they hold up well. Many injuries to the knee
are traceable to bad technique or decisions (Shen, Washington Post)
such as athletes that do not stay on their toes, weekend warriors,
and 'running like a girl'. In light of these facts many schools
and athletic programs are implementing training methods that aim
to reduce the bad techniques in athletes (Shen, Washington Post)
and increase facilities maintainence programs to control problems
like gopher holes.
Q) How can you tell if there is a tear of a ligament in the knee?
A) Generally there is some pain (degree varies)
and a popping noise. An interesting paradox is that the more complete
a tear the less pain there is (I.S. Smillie). In my case (complete
LCL rupture with slight tear of the capsule) there was only a pop
that was audible up to ten yards away and no pain for about one
hour, only later did the intense pain set in due to the swelling
that built up.
Q) Do all injuries require surgery?
A) No (Chhabra, et. al. page 217). Depending
on the degree of injury, the structure injured, and the patients
probable future activity level surgery may or may not be beneficial.
For instance there are many people, even competitive athletes, that
return to their normal pre-injury activity level with a complete
ACL tear and no reconstructive surgery.
Q) What are the uncommon circumstances that could injure the LCL?
A) In order to injure the LCL the lower leg
must experience significant varus force while the femur is fixed.
This is difficult because there is a whole other leg keeping most
potential hazards (i.e. linebackers, cars, runaway baby carriages)
from directly contacting the knee is such manner and instead the
protecting leg is hit causing an MCL rupture. But there are ways
that the LCL is injured and for wrestlers this is not an uncommon
injury because of the dangerous and improperly applied leg holds
and take downs that are used.
Q) Why are women more susceptible to knee injuries than men?
A) Even in today's politically correct atmosphere
there still remain some differences between men and women. Although
anyone can sustain a knee injury women are at an increased risk
for ligament tears. When women go through their monthly hormonal
cycles the level of estrogen in their bloodstream increases, increased
estrogen can lead to looser joint that can in turn get out of alignment
making a tear more likely. Women also tend to have smaller ACL's
than men. Lastly, females have a tendency to move in a fashion that
puts more stress on their knees. Often females move in a more upright
position instead of a crouched position (as males do) when participating
in physical activities and women rely on their quadricepts more
than their hamstrings (Shen, Washington Post).
Q) How great are the loads on the knee joint?
A) During level walking the load can increase
to up to three times normal body weight and up to four times body
weight when climbing stairs (Chhabra, et. al. page 208). Incredibly
when jumping the load can increase seven to ten times body weight
(Shen, Washington Post)!
Q) How is the patella important?
A) Patients who have undergone a pallectomy
(removal of the patella) are not prevented from playing sports because
they can't run but rather because the can't stop (I.S. Smillie).
The patella is really a sesamoid bone that is inserted in the patellar
ligament that helps to increase the distance of the ligament from
the axis of rotation thus providing greater leverage to the quadricepts
muscle (up to 30% greater) (Chhabra, et. al. page 216). On the back
of the patella there are two facets with a ridge between them, this
ridge fits into what is known as the femoral trochlea, the area
between the two femoral condyles. Four ligaments, one from each
compass direction, keeps the patella in the trochlea all of which
creates the "Q angle".
Q) What happens if there is an infection in the knee joint under
A) In the first place this is not as likely
as might be thought. Even though the synovial fluid is filled with
a lot of nutrients and is oxygen rich this mixture is tailored to
the needs of the cells it normally serves, the chondrocytes. The
chondrocytes have a very low metabolic rate thus reducing there
need for too rich of a medium. Within the fluid itself there are
phagocytic cells such as macrophages that normally help clean up
the dead cells in the joint yet they are capable of defense of the
joint. If all else fails there is always the option of antibiotic
therapy since antibiotics can freely difuse through the capsule
and the synovial membrane. Patients get into trouble when an infection
goes too long undiagnosed and treated appropriately because bacteria
will adhere to the bone surfaces (osteomyelytis) and form a biofilm
which is largely impenetrable to antibiotics and the immune system
(Chhabra, et. al. page 101). At this point there are only two options
either removal of the affected area and everything below it by amputation
or going in and manually scraping away the bacterial colony and
implanting antibiotic laced paste or antibiotic eluting beads (Chhabra,
et. al. page 108).
Q) Is the knee able to respond to use/disuse?
A) The knee, like most biological systems,
does respond to the amount of use it recieves. In athletes it has
been observed than the cartilage is thicker than in comparable non-active
people (Ateshi, et. al.). There is also increased fluid production
from the synovial membrane when there is more movement, thus increasing
lubrication within the joint.
Q) What is "Dashboard Knee" (I.S. Smillie)?
A) Dashboard Knee is the name given to the
phenomenom of injury to the knee joint, especially the PCL, in a
car accident due to a flexed knee coming into abrupt contact with
the dashboard. This contact forces the proximal end of the tibia
to push back further than it normally would and consequently the
PCL which is providing tension to the flexed knee is streched beyond
its capacity and ruptures. The incidence of this type of injury
can be dramatically reduced by the use of seat belts.
Q) Why is immunosuppression not necessary in an allogeneic transplant?
A) Ligaments are composed of collagen which
is an acellular material. Patient 1's immune system views Patient
2s transplanted ligament as a piece of collagen, which is chemically
the same between every organism, that has no cells and thus no class
I MHC presentation so there is no hyper, acute, or chronic rejection.
Q) Does a transplanted ligament regenerate, does is just wear out,
or is it able to last a lifetime without regeneration?
A) The ligament may be made of collagen but
that collagen is deposited there by fibroblasts. The donor fibroblasts
are killed before transplantation and then, once the transplant
is complete, the recipient fibroblasts colonize the ligament and
maintain it throughout life.
First and foremost I would like to thank
Dr. Michael J. Hulstyn at the Rhode Island Hospital not only for
his generous help and clear explanations but also for his excellent
care and truly geniune friendship during the coarse of my surgeries
as a result of my April 2003 injury.
1) G.A. Ateshian, L.J. Soslowsky, V.C. Mow,
1991, Quantitation of Articular Surface Topography & Cartilage
Thickness in Knee Joints using Stereophotogrammetry, Journal
2) A. Chhabra, L.I. Katolik, R. Pavlovich
Jr., B. J. Cole, M.D. Miller, 2003, Orthopaedic Approaches to
Sports Medicine, Chicago Press.
3) L. Ombregt, P. Bisschop, H. J. ter Veer,
2003, A System of Orthopaedic Medicine, Churchill Livingstone.
4) I.S. Smillie, 1978, Injuries of the
Knee Joint, Churchill Livingstone
5) Fern Shen, 2002, Know Your Knees,