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What to Know About a Quadriceps Tendon Tear

Medically Reviewed by Dany Paul Baby, MD on October 18, 2022

The quadriceps tendon is a durable piece of tissue that helps you straighten your leg. A quadriceps tendon tear, or quadriceps tendon rupture, is a painful condition that makes this activity difficult, usually as the result of an impact injury. 

Recovery time depends on the degree of the tear. It can be a lengthy process, and surgery and rehabilitative care are often recommended. 

Quadriceps Tendon Anatomy

The quadriceps are a large muscle group located in the top front part of your leg. They help you run, jump, stand up, and keep your balance. There are four muscles in the quadriceps group, and they’re all joined together at the bottom by the quadriceps tendon. 

This tendon also links the quadriceps to your bones. It’s located just above your kneecap (patella). The quadriceps tendon helps you straighten your leg. 

Meanwhile, below the patella, you’ll find the patellar tendon. That connects to your tibia, a bone in your lower leg. These muscles and tendons all work together to form strong, functional leg muscles. 

How a Quadriceps Tendon Tear Can Impact Your Health

You might experience a partial tearing of your tendon or a complete tear. Either way, a torn quadriceps tendon is a painful, limiting injury. 

The severity of the injury will determine your treatment plan and recovery time. Even a partial tear will limit your movement significantly, and you’ll typically have to immobilize your leg until it heals. This can take up to six weeks. During this time, you might struggle with regular movements like walking and changing positions (including standing up).  

Complete tears are more serious. They almost always require surgery and a longer recovery time. 

Causes of Quadriceps Tendon Tears

Quadriceps tendon tears usually affect physically active middle-aged people, often as the result of a sudden impact like jumping and landing on the leg wrong or changing direction too quickly when running. A fall can also result in tendon damage.

Other people may be prone to tendon tears because of certain medical conditions. For instance, people who suffer from inflammation in the tendons (tendinitis) are at risk for tendon rupture in severe cases. 

Some other conditions that can put you at risk include:

  • End-stage kidney failure
  • Hyperparathyroidism
  • Rheumatoid arthritis
  • Diabetes
  • Infection
  • Weakened muscles due to a lack of movement

Some antibiotics, as well as steroid use, have also been linked to quadriceps tendon tears. 

Quadriceps Tendon Tear Symptoms

Tearing your quadriceps tendon is a painful experience. You might first hear a popping sound and experience a surge of pain. A sensation of ripping or tearing is also common. This is followed by: 

  • Swelling around the knee and lower quadriceps area
  • Reduced movement in the affected leg and knee
  • Tenderness around the knee
  • Sagging of the kneecap
  • Bruising
  • Difficulty walking or putting pressure on the knee

Diagnosing a Quadriceps Tendon Tear

A quadriceps tendon tear is easily diagnosable. A doctor will ask you about your medical history and what you were doing at the time of the injury. You may be asked to extend your leg from a bent position or try to move it around.  

Medical staff may then perform a physical examination and order some imaging tests to look inside the knee area and determine the extent of the injury. Imaging tests could include: 

  • An X-ray
  • An ultrasound
  • A magnetic resonance image (MRI)

These will help the doctor to determine the type of injury and may indicate possible complications. It will also show if the tendon tear is partial or complete. 

Quadriceps Tendon Tear Treatment

You can use the R.I.C.E. method for immediate management of the injury. This involves: 

  1. Rest
  2. Ice
  3. Compression
  4. Elevation

After you see the doctor, they will decide your treatment plan based on the degree of the tear. 

Small partial tears can sometimes be managed without surgery. Immobilization of the quadriceps and physical therapy will be recommended, though. 

In the case of complete tears, surgery is almost always needed. The sooner the surgery is completed, the better your chances of making a full recovery. That’s because, following such a severe injury, the tendon retracts and becomes shorter over time, making a full recovery more difficult. In these cases, tissue grafts are used to extend the tendon. 

During surgery, small holes are drilled into the patella. The tendon is then fastened to these holes in the kneecap using strong threads. Another method uses small metal anchors to attach the patella and tendon. This eliminates the need for drilling. Neither method is universally favored over the other, though. Other factors like your age, activity level, or hospital resources will determine your treatment plan.

Follow the post-surgery instructions your doctor gives you. Often, your knee or leg will be immobilized for a few weeks after the procedure. 

If you’re in pain even after receiving treatment, talk to your doctor. They may prescribe some medicine that can reduce your discomfort. 

Recovery and Outlook  

The most important factor in determining your quadriceps tear recovery time and healing is how quickly you receive treatment. Long-term issues are often associated with delayed treatment. Additionally, physical therapy is an important part of making a full recovery. 

Total rehabilitation can take up to six months, depending on the injury. It’s important to patiently wait before resuming certain activities. Otherwise, quadriceps tendon issues can reoccur. 

Show Sources

SOURCES: 
Mayo Clinic: “Tendinitis.”
OrthoInfo: “Quadriceps Tendon Tear.”
University of Colorado: “Quadriceps Tendon Rupture and Repair.”
StatPearls: “Quadriceps Tendon Rupture.”

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