Patellar Tendinopathy surgery and treatment options

Ross A. Hauser, MD; Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C

Understanding points: People will often come into the office with confusion because they have been diagnosed with patellar tendinosis or patellar tendinitis. 

Article outline:

Part 1 Conservative Care treatment options for patella tendinopathy.

Part 2 Surgery for patella tendinopathy.

Part 3 Regenerative medicine injections.

The problem of chronic patellar tendinopathy

The problem with chronic patellar tendinopathy is that it is usually not an isolated knee injury. The problem of patella tendinopathy is that it is part of a series of problems in the knee caused by chronic knee instability. We will often have people email us describing an injury to the knee. The limitations this is giving them include the inability to perform sports, work without pain, or even just walk up a flight of steps without knee pain. These people also tell us about the confusion in their diagnosis and the true cause of what is causing their pain. Some tell us about the arguments between their doctors as to what their MRI “really,” says. Some people will have a meniscus tear on their MRI and their doctors focus on that, minimizing the potential of a problem with the patella tendon. The longer this goes on, the greater the need to get in line for surgery.

“I don’t want surgery because I do not want to take more time off from training”

Many people have patellar tendinopathy. They take some anti-inflammatories, look up video exercises, buy tape and knee braces and they go about their way with a chronic nagging injury that they can pretty much control. For others, the situation has progressed to the point of surgical recommendations. Such as these types of stories we hear.

I have been trying to get back to running, I have patellar tendonitis that is not responding. I don’t want to take more time off. The orthopedist I am seeing is prescribing anti-inflammatories, I have been on them for months, stronger doses, and I still can’t run. He tells me to rest, I have been resting. I still can’t run. I have had two MRIs. I have patellar tendon inflammation. My doctor and I both knew it but nothing is working for me. Not ice, not yoga, not physical therapy. I am getting quickly out of shape.

Others go something like this.

I am being recommended for surgery. My orthopedist tells me I should have no illusions that I will be the same or a better player after surgery. I will just have more better days, than worse days. I have no illusions, I play volleyball, I have already had two meniscus procedures and my doctor says the tendinitis is probably a response to my post-surgically weakened knee.

From self-management to doctor’s care. Your knee pain remains chronic.

When someone has knee pain, from whatever source, a self-management program is usually taken before a trip to the doctor. This will include some type of stabilizing brace or knee sleeve and anti-inflammatory medication. Of course, these are only symptom suppression means to keep swelling down and to give the wearer a false sense of security that the brace will hold their knee together. Education is part of the management plan, a person will usually spend a lot of time online trying to find out what is wrong with their knee and the best course of action they can take. The one suggestion most patients with Jumper’s Knee do not want to follow is “REST.”

If you are reading this article, it is likely that here you are, with knee pain that is getting progressively worse, wearing a sleeve on your knee, and a knee that is becoming much less functional. Shutting down your knee and resting seems the best option now.

Rest did not help. Anti-inflammatories are making your knee worse.

After a few weeks of rest, you are back on your knee and nothing has changed. You still have pain, you still have instability. Now perhaps it is time for a trip to the doctor. For some people, they do not go to the doctor. They continue on with more anti-inflammatories because they want to play. These people are going to “suck it up.”

At the beginning of his article, we discussed the difference between tendinitis and tendinosis – this is why it is important to you.

If you would like to learn about When NSAIDs make pain worse and lead to a worsening joint condition, please read our article When NSAIDs make pain worse.

If you are reading this article, perhaps this is what is happening to you now. You are in this situation because you are looking for a quick fix recovery from patellar tendinopathy.

Research: “No treatments exist for patellar tendinopathy that guarantee quick and full recovery”

This is not what you probably wanted to hear. But let’s look deeply at this. What most researchers warn is that there is no “magic bullet,” single injection, or single therapy that will repair this type of knee damage overnight. If you have Jumper’s Knee, you did this type of damage over time, it takes time to repair.

The above statement comes from an October 2017 study in the Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine (1from the Center for Sports Medicine at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands. Here is the whole sentence:

“Currently, no treatments exist for patellar tendinopathy that guarantees quick and full recovery. Our objective was to assess which treatment option provides the best chance of clinical improvement and to assess the influence of patient and injury characteristics on the clinical effect of these treatments.”

These were the treatments they tested:

Participants were divided into 5 groups:

The results:

NO CLEAR BENEFIT to any of those treatments – 2022 research

A May 2022 paper in the journal Physical Therapy in Sport (2) suggests that “Despite a dearth of studies on preventative interventions for athletes with Patellar tendinopathy, resistance training may be a useful prophylactic (preventative) method. Eccentric, heavy slow, and isometric resistance training have been found to be feasible and clinically beneficial in-season. There are a lack of studies showing that extracorporeal shock wave therapy offers any additional benefit over resistance training in competing athletes. Patellar strapping and taping may offer short-term pain relief during training and competition.”

We do find that eccentric exercise training offered some degree of relief, however, the more exercise the less benefit (not what an athlete wants to hear), the longer the patient had the symptoms and the patient’s age also presented problems.

Takeaway points in this study:

The research above continues the work from the University of Groningen researchers. (3Earlier the University medical researchers investigated the impact patellar tendinopathy has on a patient’s sports and work performance. Their findings were published in the journal Research in Sports Medicine.

The Dutch researchers concluded that the impact of Patellar Tendinopathy on sports and work performance is substantial and stresses the importance of developing preventive measures.

More than 50% of the athletes with patellar tendinopathy were forced to retire from active sports.

A November 2023 paper in the Archives of Orthopaedic and Trauma Surgery (4) suggested “Patellar tendinopathy, despite its frequency and clinical importance, remains a real challenge for every sports physician, mostly because of its persistence. According to a prospective study involving elite athletes competing in football (soccer), long-distance running, volleyball, orienteering, basketball, and ice hockey, more than 50% of the athletes with patellar tendinopathy were forced to retire from active sports.

A difference of opinion between clinician and patient over what is truly “treatment success.”

A November 2023 study in the American Journal of Sports Medicine (5) sought to determine if standard physical testing, used in supporting clinical diagnosis, assessing the prognosis, and monitoring treatment of patellar tendinopathy are reflective of the patient’s clinical improvement at 24 weeks after treatment onset.

What this study did was to take 76 consecutive athletes with patellar tendinopathy and divide them into two different programs of exercise therapy for 24 weeks. “Athletes underwent a range of physical tests before and during exercise therapy (12 and 24 weeks), including isometric muscle strength (quadriceps and hip abductors), muscle flexibility (quadriceps, hamstrings, soleus, and gastrocnemius), vertical jump height, and visual analog scale (VAS) scores by palpation, after 3 jump trials, and after single-leg squat. (The clinicians used their hands to elicit pain responses in the knees and used that as a measuring guide to the treatment outcomes).

What the researchers found was that these standard exercises and outcome scoring systems did not match up and maybe led clinicians and patients to believe the treatment was working or not in the way clinician and patient hoped for. This is what they said: “In patients with patellar tendinopathy, physical test results including strength and flexibility in the lower limb, jump performance, and pain levels during pain-provoking tests were not identified as prognostic factors for patient-reported outcomes after exercise therapy. Similarly, changes in physical test results were not associated with changes in patient-reported outcomes after adjustments. These results do not support using physical test results to estimate prognosis or monitor treatment response.”

Cortisone injection concerns in treating patellar tendinopathy

A recent paper in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy (6) offered this summary of the concerns of using cortisone for patella tendinopathy.

Cortisone can mutate stem cells and make the tendon weaker.

More research on extracorporeal shockwave therapy for patella tendinopathy.

In March 2018, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, (5) a multi-national team of researchers evaluated extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT) in treating Achilles tendinopathy, greater trochanteric pain syndrome, medial tibial stress syndrome, patellar tendinopathy, and proximal hamstring tendinopathy.

Their findings:

Low-level evidence suggests that ESWT

The conclusion simply suggests,  extracorporeal shockwave therapy may or may not help. Many people have good success with extracorporeal shockwave therapy, however, similar findings were made in an August 2018 study from doctors at the National Taiwan University and Taipei Medical University in Taiwan. They published findings in the journal BioMed Central Musculoskeletal Disorders (6) in London. The suggestion of their findings is that caution is given in providing ESWT to knee soft tissue disorders. ESWT may or may not work for Patellar tendinopathies.

An October 2019 study in the Annals of Translational Medicine (7) also offers this summary:

“The mechanism of action of ESWT is not fully understood, and current research as to its efficacy in treating tendinopathies is conflicting. It is suspected that it can have both analgesic effects along with potential tissue regenerative effects. The efficacy of shockwave therapy is inconsistent, with some research finding no improvements. Other research is promising.”

Polish researchers writing in the Journal of Human Kinetics (8) published an October 2022 study that sought to determine the therapeutic effectiveness of extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT) for athletes with patellar tendinopathy. The researchers examined the data of seven previously published articles and compared ESWT and control groups. What they found was that ESWT and other conservative treatments did not differ significantly with respect to the Visual Analogue Scale (VAS) a pain scoring system of 0 no pain to 10 agonizing pain at the long-term of six months after treatment. Furthermore, no significant differences were found between the ESWT and control groups regarding the pooled Victorian Institute of Sports Assessment for Patella (VISA-P) a pain scoring system of eight questions, for long-term outcomes. . . Hence, no clear and generalized conclusions can be drawn regarding ESWT effectiveness in athletes with patellar tendinopathy.”

Pain scale chart 0 - 10

Ultrasound-guided dry needling for jumper’s knee

A March 2023 control study published in the journal Scientific Reports (9) compared the effects of ultrasound-guided dry needling combined with conventional physical therapy and conventional physical therapy alone in patients with jumper’s knees. A total of 96 patients with pre-diagnosed jumper’s knee were randomly assigned to an experimental group (ultrasound-guided dry needling and conventional physical therapy) and a conventional group (conventional physical therapy alone) with 48 participants each.

Pain intensity and functional disability were recorded using standard scoring and grading patient-reported surveys at baseline, at 1st, the 2nd, and 4th weeks. A total of 8 sessions of treatment were provided. Results showed that patients in both groups had improvement in signs of jumper’s knee but the improvement in ultrasound-guided dry needling combined with conventional physical therapy was more significant.

A significant difference was seen after four weeks of intervention in ultrasound-guided dry needling combined with conventional physical therapy in pain, function, and stiffness than the conventional physical therapy. Ultrasound-guided dry needling with conventional physical therapy of the patellar tendon has been found an effective treatment for jumper’s knee and helps in reducing pain intensity, improving function and ultrasonographic features (visual evidence of repair) in patients with jumper’s knee.

Part 2: Surgery for patellar tendinopathy

The main problem with patellar tendinopathy – it is a degenerative disorder rather than an inflammatory disorder – should you have surgery? If the doctor suggests your problem is due to patellar tendinopathy, you have a problem with the tendon that passes from the quadriceps muscle (the large muscle at the front of the thigh) over the kneecap (patella) to connect to the shinbone (tibia).

What are we seeing in this image?

The patella is pulled and pushed in all directions. It is pulled by the Iliotibial band, it is stabilized in place by the lateral patellar retinaculum and the medial patellar retinaculum. The quadriceps move the patella upwards, the patellar ligament moves it downward. When one of these structures is weakened or damaged through degenerative wear and tear, the knee cap becomes unstable.

The patella is pulled and pushed in all directions. It is pulled by the Iliotibial band, it is stabilized in place by the lateral patellar retinaculum and the medial patellar retinaculum. The quadriceps move the patella upwards, the patellar ligament moves it downward. When one of these structures is weakened or damaged through degenerative wear and tear, the knee cap becomes unstable.

Further recommendations and guidelines for the treatment of patellar tendinopathy were published in The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (10).

The case for Patellar Tendinopathy surgery

A September 2023 study (11) from doctors at the Department of Orthopedic Surgery, San Antonio Military Medical Center, and the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center reported good outcomes with patellar tendinopathy surgery. In a review of forty medical studies and 1238 published case studies on the knees who underwent surgery for patellar tendinopathy, the researchers found “clinically and statistically significant improvements after surgery. The overall return-to-sport rate following operative management was 89.8% of athletes returning to the same level of activity.”

Earlier, Doctors from the Department of Orthopedic Surgery and the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation, Mayo Clinic, Florida State University, and the Florida State University College of Medicine, published their findings in the journal Orthopedics. (12) They found open surgery and arthroscopic techniques achieved similar satisfactory results in 81% of patients, respectively. The average time to return to play was 5.6 months and 5 months, respectively.

The unappealing aspects of Patellar Tendinopathy surgery – Average time to return to play was 5.6 months and 5 months. Second:  If the surgery fails, it is difficult to fix.

The problem with surgery for the athlete is three-fold,

This is what a paper from the University of Salerno and the University of London suggested in 2017 in the journal Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review. (13)

  1. Many patients respond well to conservative treatment, but about 10% of them do not.
  2. In these cases, surgery is indicated.
  3. In a small percentage of patients, surgery is unsuccessful. This group of patients presents a major challenge, as options are limited.

Four years later, the same researchers issued their findings on revision surgery as an option. In a March 2021 paper in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (14), the researchers published outcomes on 22 athletes (an average about age about 25 years old) who had revision patellar tendinopathy surgery after the failed outcome of their first patellar tendinopathy surgery. Approximately 15 months had passed between the two surgeries. Following the second surgery, “fifteen patients (68.2%) returned to competition within an average of 11.6 months. Of these 15 patients, a further two had decreased their performance, and 2 more had abandoned sports participation by the final follow-up. The overall rate of complications was 18.2%. One patient (4.5%) had a further revision procedure.”

I was a very active woman. In the past year, I underwent arthroscopic knee repair

Many people have patella arthroscopic surgery with outstanding results. These are typically not the patients we see in our office. we see people like this:

I was a very active woman. In the past year, I underwent arthroscopic knee repair. I had a torn meniscus that needed repair, medial meniscus repair, and patella debridement for my patellar tendinopathy. I was very happy with the surgery initially because I was able to return to my activities within six months. However a month into my return to activities I had significant knee pain. My knee swelled up. I could not run, I could barely walk. Steps and inclines became impossible.

Part 3 Regenerative medicine injections

In this section, we will discuss the research surrounding Prolotherapy, PRP, and stem cell therapies. A quick word on Patellar Tendinopathy and ligament weakness. Keeping the patella where it should be in the knee.

Keeping the patella where it should be in the knee.

Before we look at the research and explanation discussing the use of injection techniques such as Prolotherapy, Platelet Rich Plasma, and Stem Cell Therapy. Let’s look at a paper from the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics, Sinai Hospital, Baltimore. It was published in the journal Annals of Translational Medicine,(15) October 2019.

In this paper, various methods of treating common knee injuries are discussed. One section has very good information on the concept of the patella and the importance of keeping the patella where it should be in the knee. Here the discussion surrounds the use of tape.

“Patellar taping is commonly used in conjunction with manual and exercise therapies in the management of Patellofemoral pain syndrome. Taping is predominately used to help decrease pain. Other studies show it can also help with patellar alignment and muscle activation. As patellar hypermobility has been shown as a predisposing factor for developing Patellofemoral pain syndrome, taping can be indicated to promote patellar positioning and decrease pain. . . .Overall, the effects of taping, are conflicting, with some studies showing no benefit and others unsure of the mechanisms of improvements noted. The positive changes including decreased pain and improved VMO (vastus medialis obliquus, the muscle above the knee used to extend the leg at the knee and to stabilize the patella) function are only short-term but can be helpful with acute management of symptoms with functional activity.”

The goal of tape, braces, or surgery is to get the patella back into place. That is the goal of regenerative medicine injections as well.

Non-surgical bio-treatments Prolotherapy and PRP Therapy for patellar tendinopathy

Prolotherapy is the injection of a simple sugar solution, hypertonic dextrose, into and around specific important structures in the knee to stimulate their repair. Many studies have documented Prolotherapy treatment effectiveness

Prolotherapy is a multiple injection technique that is demonstrated in the video below. The treatment stimulates healing and repair of the tendon attachments, and the knee ligaments and addresses problems of the cartilage that sits behind the knee cap and in the trochlear groove. When more significant degenerative damage has occurred, we may utilize Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy, the use of your own blood platelets reintroduced into the knee. Ross Hauser, MD discusses a case of 70% tear treated with stem cell therapy and Prolotherapy.

Prolotherapy for patellar tendinopathy research

A November 2020 study in the Journal of Experimental Orthopaedics (16) examined the use of Prolotherapy and Sclerotherapy injections. A note of understanding. At one time Prolotherapy and Sclerotherapy were used as somewhat synonymous terms. They are however not the same treatment. Prolotherapy injections center on the joints with the repair of the tendon, ligaments, and cartilage. Sclerotherapy focuses on the blood vessels and is considered an excellent treatment for varicose veins.

In this study, the researchers noted that: “Sclerotherapy and Prolotherapy are, among a wide range of conservative treatment options, two promising therapies and have shown positive results in other tendinopathies. Since the treatments’ efficacy and safety are still not defined, this review sought to answer questions on recommendations for use in clinical utility, safety, and how to perform the injection in the most effective way.”

The findings: The researchers examined ten previously published papers and found positive results with an increase in functional ability scores and decreases in pain scores in the patients examined. “Among all ten studies, no serious adverse events were reported. Based on this limited set of studies, there seems to be some evidence that Sclerotherapy and Prolotherapy may be effective treatment options to treat pain and to improve function in patients with Chronic Patellar tendinopathy.”

One of my more memorable cases over the course of 30 years doing Prolotherapy and more recently stem cell therapy was a patient who came in and had a 70% tear of their patella tendon.

When you have bone spurs in the knee

What are we seeing in this image?

This image graphically shows what can happen when knee instability is left untreated or improperly treated. The unstable knee in this image has created a large bone spur to help stabilize the knee by limiting the knee’s natural range of motion. Because of the severity of the knee instability, the knee grew itself a very large bone spur. The bone spur became so large it started to rub and fray the patella tendon of this patient to the point of near-total rupture.

This image graphically shows what can happen when knee instability is left untreated or improperly treated. The unstable knee in this image has created a large bone spur to help stabilize the knee by limiting the knee's natural range of motion. Because of the severity of the knee instability, the knee grew itself a very large bone spur. The bone spur became so large is started to rub and fray the patella tendon of this patient to the point of near total rupture.

PRP and Prolotherapy

PRP injections are statistically better than the control group (ESWT and dry needling) at longer-term (6 months or more) follow-up, suggesting that PRP is an effective and worthwhile treatment for Patellar Tendinopathy.

In a one-year study of patients who decided on non-surgical PRP treatments to get them back to their sport, European doctors found that all 20 patients in their study benefited from one injection of PRP coupled with a standardized eccentric rehabilitation (exercise). They concluded: “This study confirms that a local injection of PRP coupled with a program of eccentric rehabilitation for treating a chronic jumper’s knee, improves pain symptoms and the functionalities of the subjects’ knee up to 1 year after injection.”(17)

Doctors in the United Kingdom writing in the journal Knee Surgery and Related Disease (18) released their study in which they state: “The most important finding in our meta-analysis is that PRP injections are statistically better than the control group (ESWT and dry needling) at longer-term (6 months or more) follow-up suggesting that PRP is an effective and worthwhile treatment for Patellar Tendinopathy.”

In Germany, doctors supported these findings. Writing in the medical journal Der Unfallchirurg (English: The trauma surgeon), (19) the German researchers suggested that treatment with platelet-rich plasma showed a significantly better outcome when used correctly. Additionally, treatments such as Extracorporeal shockwave therapy, operative treatment, and sclerotherapy (Prolotherapy) have also shown positive effects. Treatment with corticosteroid injections and with oral non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) showed positive short-term effects.

How PRP is given and the experience of the clinician doing the treatment makes the difference.

Doctors at the University of Turin in Italy wrote in September 2023 in the European Journal of Orthopaedic Surgery & Traumatology (20) ” PRP has demonstrated promising results in promoting cellular remodeling (repairing to the tendons) and accelerating the healing process in the jumper’s knee. It shows potential benefits in pain reduction, improved function, and accelerated recovery. However, the efficacy of PRP varies depending on patient characteristics, disease severity, and the specific administration methodology. Establishing standardized PRP preparation and administration protocols are necessary to optimize its effectiveness.”

Multiple Injections of PRP may hold the answer

Doctors at The Rizzoli Orthopaedic Institute in Italy published their paper: Nonsurgical Treatments of Patellar Tendinopathy: Multiple Injections of Platelet-Rich Plasma Are a Suitable Option: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. It appeared in the March 2018 issue of the American Journal of Sports Medicine. (21)

What they were looking for was evidence on nonoperative options to treat chronic patellar tendinopathy: Three treatments came to the forefront as the most studied: They are mentioned in the research above:

  1. eccentric exercise,
  2. extracorporeal shockwave therapy (ESWT),
  3. and platelet-rich plasma (PRP).
    1. Single and multiple PRP injections were evaluated separately.

“Eccentric exercises may seem the strategy of choice in the short-term, but multiple PRP injections may offer more satisfactory results at long-term follow-up and can be therefore considered a suitable option for the treatment of patellar tendinopathy.”

In December 2018, doctors at the University of Connecticut Health Center published this summary on the effect of PRP on Patellar tendinopathy in the journal Current Reviews in Musculoskeletal Medicine. (22)

The summary of their findings suggested:

The caption reads progression of patellar tendon healing with stem cells as evidenced by ultrasound. Pictures A and B show the patella tendon at the start of the treatment. MRI revealed 70% tear of the patellar tendon at this time. Picture C shows healed patella tendon 8 months later this patient had one bone marrow treatment and several PRP treatments to resolve her tear.

Bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells

Doctors at the University of Pittsburgh writing in the Journal of Knee Surgery (23) say athletes and doctors are turning to biomaterials, that is stem cells and blood platelets (PRP therapy). In fact, “They are becoming the mainstay of nonoperative therapy in the high-demand athletic population. The most well-studied agents include platelet-rich plasma (PRP) and stem cells-both of which have shown promise in the treatment of various conditions. Animal and clinical studies have demonstrated improved outcomes for patients with chronic patellar tendinopathy.”

In September 2023, a team of international researchers wrote in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine (24) followed up on their previous research on treating patellar tendinopathy with bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells, as compared to treating patients with leukocyte-poor platelet-rich plasma (The PRP preparation that acts more as anti-inflammatory). In addition, they tested the idea that patients treated with leukocyte-poor platelet-rich plasma before treatment with bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells had better later outcomes. As we will see this was not the case.

In ten patients treated with leukocyte-poor platelet-rich plasma group, no tendon regeneration was seen at 6-month follow-up. At this point, they were subsequently offered treatment with bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells to see if tendon repair would occur. They found: “Ten patients who were originally treated with leukocyte-poor platelet-rich plasma and then with bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells exhibited an improvement in tendon structure in their MRI scans, as well as a clinical pain improvement . . . ” However, pain improvement was not significant for sports. Thus, applying leukocyte-poor platelet-rich plasma before bone marrow-derived mesenchymal stem cells did not yield any type of advantage.”

Summary and contact us. Can we help you?

We hope you found this article informative and it helped answer many of the questions you may have surrounding your knee problems and knee instability.  If you would like to get more information specific to your challenges please email us: Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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This article was updated December 10, 2023


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Caring Medical Florida
9738 Commerce Center Ct.
Fort Myers, FL 33908
(239) 308-4701 Phone
(855) 779-1950 Fax

Hauser Neck Center
9734 Commerce Center Ct.
Fort Myers, FL 33908
(239) 308-4701 Phone
(855) 779-1950 Fax
We are an out-of-network provider. Treatments discussed on this site may or may not work for your specific condition.
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