Chondromalacia patellae refers to the progressive erosion of the articular cartilage of the knee joint, that is the cartilage underlying the kneecap (patella) that articulates with the knee joint.
Chondromalacia patellae (CMP), also known as patello-femoral pain syndrome or patello-femoral stress syndrome, is a syndrome that causes pain/discomfort at the front of the knee.
It is associated with irritation or wear on the underside of the kneecap, or patella. In a normal knee, the articular cartilage is smooth and elastic and glides smoothly over the surface of the thighbone, or femur, when the knee is bent. Erosion of the cartilage roughens the surface and prevents this smooth action.
CMP is most common in adolescent females, although older people may also develop it. An average of two out of 10,000 people develop this condition, many of them runners or other athletes.
CMP is the result of the normal aging process, overuse, injury, or uneven pressures exerted on the knee joint. In teens, CMP may be caused by uneven growth or uneven strength in the thighmuscles. Growth spurts, common in teens, may result in a mildly abnormal alignment of the patella, which increases the angle formed by the thigh and the patellar tendon (Q-angle). This condition adds to the damage. Symptoms include pain, normally around the kneecap, and a grinding sensation felt when extending the leg. The pain may radiate to the back of the knee, or it may be intermittent and brought on by squatting, kneeling, going up or down stairs, especially down, or by repeated bending of the joint.
Diagnosis is established during a physical examination performed by a general practitioner or an orthopedist, and is based on frequency of symptoms and confirmed by x rays of the knee. The CMP erosion can also be seen on an MRI, although this type of scan is not routinely performed for this purpose. The patient should inform the doctor about any previous injuries to the joint.
Initial treatment may consist of resting the knee using crutches, along with aspirin, Tylenol, or a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as Motrin for seven to 10 days. The person should limit sports activity until the joint is healed and may use ice followed by heat to decrease inflammation. When the doctor allows the patient to resume sports, a knee brace may be prescribed in the form of a stabilizer with a hole at the kneecap.
Treatment also includes low impact exercises to strengthen the quadriceps muscles which help stabilize the knee joint. Physical therapy may be suggested at the start of this program so as to help the patient learn the correct method of performing the exercises.
Approximately 85% of people do well with conservative CMP treatment. The remainder still have severe pain and may require arthroscopic surgery to repair the tissues inside the knee joint. In more severe cases, open surgery may be required to realign the kneecap and perhaps other corrections.
Physical therapy offers treatments that may help CMP patients. Aqua therapy has the benefit of exercising the knee without putting stress on it and it also strengthens the thigh muscles. Biofeedback can be used to learn tensing and relaxing specific muscles to relieve pain. These techniques have the benefit of no side effects. Massage therapy might be beneficial as well. Calcium, minerals, and vitamins as part of a balanced diet will aid healing and help prevent further problems.
In most teens with CMP, the prognosis is excellent since the damage is reversible when treatment starts before the cartilage begins to break down. With proper treatment and preventive techniques, teenagers will complete their growth without permanent damage to the joint. Only about 15% of patients require surgical intervention. Older people may go on to develop osteoarthritis in the knee.
Proper exercises are the best preventive measure. Since tightness of thigh muscles is a risk factor, warming up before athletic activities is recommended, as well as participating in a variety of sports rather than just one. Stretching exercises increase flexibility of the quadriceps, hip flexors, and hamstrings. Strengthening exercises such as short arc leg extensions, straight leg raises, quadriceps isometric exercises, and stationary bicycling are also recommended.