OpenStax Anatomy and Physiology
The knee joint is the largest joint of the body. It actually consists of three articulations. The femoropatellar joint is found between the patella and the distal femur. The medial tibiofemoral joint and lateral tibiofemoral joint are located between the medial and lateral condyles of the femur and the medial and lateral condyles of the tibia. All of these articulations are enclosed within a single articular capsule. The knee functions as a hinge joint, allowing flexion and extension of the leg. This action is generated by both rolling and gliding motions of the femur on the tibia. In addition, some rotation of the leg is available when the knee is flexed, but not when extended. The knee is well constructed for weight bearing in its extended position, but is vulnerable to injuries associated with hyperextension, twisting, or blows to the medial or lateral side of the joint, particularly while weight bearing.
At the femoropatellar joint, the patella slides vertically within a groove on the distal femur. The patella is a sesamoid bone incorporated into the tendon of the quadriceps femoris muscle, the large muscle of the anterior thigh. The patella serves to protect the quadriceps tendon from friction against the distal femur. Continuing from the patella to the anterior tibia just below the knee is the patellar ligament. Acting via the patella and patellar ligament, the quadriceps femoris is a powerful muscle that acts to extend the leg at the knee. It also serves as a “dynamic ligament” to provide very important support and stabilization for the knee joint.
The medial and lateral tibiofemoral joints are the articulations between the rounded condyles of the femur and the relatively flat condyles of the tibia. During flexion and extension motions, the condyles of the femur both roll and glide over the surfaces of the tibia. The rolling action produces flexion or extension, while the gliding action serves to maintain the femoral condyles centered over the tibial condyles, thus ensuring maximal bony, weight-bearing support for the femur in all knee positions. As the knee comes into full extension, the femur undergoes a slight medial rotation in relation to tibia. The rotation results because the lateral condyle of the femur is slightly smaller than the medial condyle. Thus, the lateral condyle finishes its rolling motion first, followed by the medial condyle. The resulting small medial rotation of the femur serves to “lock” the knee into its fully extended and most stable position. Flexion of the knee is initiated by a slight lateral rotation of the femur on the tibia, which “unlocks” the knee. This lateral rotation motion is produced by the popliteus muscle of the posterior leg.
Located between the articulating surfaces of the femur and tibia are two articular discs, the medial meniscus and lateral meniscus. Each is a C-shaped fibrocartilage structure that is thin along its inside margin and thick along the outer margin. They are attached to their tibial condyles, but do not attach to the femur. While both menisci are free to move during knee motions, the medial meniscus shows less movement because it is anchored at its outer margin to the articular capsule and tibial collateral ligament. The menisci provide padding between the bones and help to fill the gap between the round femoral condyles and flattened tibial condyles. Some areas of each meniscus lack an arterial blood supply and thus these areas heal poorly if damaged.
The knee joint has multiple ligaments that provide support, particularly in the extended position. Outside of the articular capsule, located at the sides of the knee, are two extrinsic ligaments. The fibular collateral ligament (lateral collateral ligament) is on the lateral side and spans from the lateral epicondyle of the femur to the head of the fibula. The tibial collateral ligament (medial collateral ligament) of the medial knee runs from the medial epicondyle of the femur to the medial tibia. As it crosses the knee, the tibial collateral ligament is firmly attached on its deep side to the articular capsule and to the medial meniscus, an important factor when considering knee injuries. In the fully extended knee position, both collateral ligaments are taut (tight), thus serving to stabilize and support the extended knee and preventing side-to-side or rotational motions between the femur and tibia.
The articular capsule of the posterior knee is thickened by intrinsic ligaments that help to resist knee hyperextension. Inside the knee are two intracapsular ligaments, the anterior cruciate ligament and posterior cruciate ligament. These ligaments are anchored inferiorly to the tibia at the intercondylar eminence, the roughened area between the tibial condyles. The cruciate ligaments are named for whether they are attached anteriorly or posteriorly to this tibial region. Each ligament runs diagonally upward to attach to the inner aspect of a femoral condyle. The cruciate ligaments are named for the X-shape formed as they pass each other (cruciate means “cross”). The posterior cruciate ligament is the stronger ligament. It serves to support the knee when it is flexed and weight bearing, as when walking downhill. In this position, the posterior cruciate ligament prevents the femur from sliding anteriorly off the top of the tibia. The anterior cruciate ligament becomes tight when the knee is extended, and thus resists hyperextension.
Betts, J. G., Young, K. A., Wise, J. A., Johnson, E., Poe, B., Kruse, D. H., … DeSaix, P. (n.d.). Anatomy and Physiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: https://openstax.org/details/books/anatomy-and-physiology