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Knee joint: want to learn more about it?

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Knee joint

The knee joint is a synovial hinge joint. It is unstable in itself, thus it requires a great deal of support from tendons and muscles. Three bones come together to form the joint, which are the femurtibia, and patella. There are also two articulations involved.

One is the tibiofemoral articulation, connecting the proximal tibia to the distal femur, while the other is the patellofemoral one, connecting the patella to the femur. As a hinged joint, the knee joint allows flexion and extension of the leg, as well as slight medial rotation in end extension, and lateral rotation when unlocking the knee.

Key facts
Articular bodies Femur: lateral and medial condyles, intercondylar groove, patellar surface (frontal side of the distal part)
Tibia: tibial plateaus
Patella: posterior surface
Articulations Tibiofemoral (lateral and medial condyles of the femur + tibial plateaus of the tibia)
Patellofemoral (patellar surface of the femur + posterior surface of the patella)
Menisci Medial, lateral
Ligaments Frontal ligaments - they stabilize the patella: patellar ligament (extension of the quadriceps femoris muscle), retinaculum (of the vastus medialis and lateralis)
Medial/lateral ligaments - prevent excessive sideways movement: medial (tibial) collateral ligament, lateral (fibular) collateral ligament
Dorsal - they prevent overextension of the knee: oblique popliteal ligament, arcuate popliteal ligament
Cruciate -  they prevent the slippage of the femur on the tibia: anterior cruciate ligament (ACL), posterior cruciate ligament (PCL)
Joint capsule Fibrous capsule with the inner synovial membrane; popliteus muscle penetrates the lateral side of the capsule
Bursae Suprapatellar, prepatellar, infrapatellar
Muscles Extensors: quadriceps femoris, rectus femoris
Flexors: sartorius, gracilis, semitendinosus, semimembranosus, popliteus, gastrocnemius
Movements Extension, terminal rotation, flexion
Vascularization Femoral arteries and six genicular branches of the popliteal artery
Innervation Tibial, common fibular, saphenous nerves
Clinical significance Fractures, O'Donaghue's triad, bursitis, osteoarthritis

All of the anatomical facts about the knee joint, as well as the clinical significance of its structures will be described in this article.

Bones and joints


The femur is the longest bone of the body. Its distal end has two convex articulating surfaces, called the lateral and medial condyles. They form the femoral part of the tibiofemoral articulation and have a larger surface area towards the dorsal side. 

The condyles are covered with a thick layer of articular cartilage. The groove between the condyles is called the intercondylar groove.

The frontal side of the distal femur forms the patellar surface, which articulates with the patella. The medial and lateral supracondylar ridges are the attachment points for the collateral ligaments. The tibial plateaus form the inferior end of the tibiofemoral articulation. Like the condyles of the femur, the tibial plateaus are covered with a thick layer of cartilage.

The patella is a triangular shaped bone that covers the front of the knee. The rounded proximal edge of the patellae is called the base. The pointed lower end is called the apex. Its front surface is convex and a thick layer of hyaline articular cartilage covers the posterior surface. This articulates with the anterior femoral surface. The patella is tightly embedded within the tendon of quadriceps.

Think you know the bones of the body? Test your knowledge with our skeleton quizzes.


Between the highly incongruent tibiofemoral articulation sit the medial and lateral menisci. The thicker parts of the menisci face the outer edges, wedging themselves into the centre of the tibiofemoral articulation and allow a more even distribution of pressure on the tibia. The medial meniscus is more C-shaped in comparison to the more circular lateral meniscus. As the medial meniscus is attached to the medial collateral ligament it is vulnerable to injury when the collateral ligament is disturbed.

The transverse ligament connects the menisci anteriorly and holds them in place during knee extension. The anterior and posterior meniscofemoral ligaments attach the menisci to the femur and the bases of the menisci are attached to the joint capsule. The relatively fixed menisci are vulnerable to damage when exposed to non-physiological knee movement.

Joint capsule

The joint capsule of the knee is relatively loose. It surrounds the articular surfaces and the patella. The fibrous capsule provides stability and the inner synovial membrane lubricates the articulating surfaces. Towards the proximal end it runs over the patella and joins with the patellar ligament. On the lateral side the popliteus muscle breaks through the capsule, making it much less stable here than the dorsal side of the capsule.


Several synovial pouches, known as bursae, surround the knee joint. Some of them join with the joint capsule. The three main ones are:

  • Suprapatellar – Located above the patella between the femur and the tendon of the quadriceps muscle
  • Prepatellar – Lies in front of the patella between the patella and the skin
  • Infrapatellar – Located under the patella between the patellar ligament and the tibia


Frontal ligaments

The frontal ligamentous apparatus holds the patella in place. They are connected to the muscles around the patella, making it mobile enough to allow full flexion and extension of the knee. 

The patellar ligament is an extension of the quadriceps muscle. It forms part of the joint capsule and inserts into the tibial tuberosity on the frontal side of the tibia.

To the left and the right of the patellae, the vastus medialis and lateralis give support via their retinaculum. They also support the sides of the joint capsule.

Medial/lateral ligaments

The lateral and medial ligaments secure the knee joint, and prevent excessive sideways movement. The medial (tibial) collateral ligament can be divided into two parts; one going towards the medial face of the tibia, restricting external rotation, and one going dorsally to the medial tibial plateau, restricting internal rotation of the knee.

On the lateral side of the knee, the cord-like shaped lateral (fibular) collateral ligament lies outside the joint capsule. It is secured between the lateral condyle of the femur and the head of the fibula.


Two ligaments prevent overextension of the knee. The oblique popliteal ligament spreads diagonally from the medial condyle of the tibia to the lateral condyle of the femur. The arcuate popliteal ligament inserts on the head of the fibula, into the oblique popliteal ligament, and the joint capsule.

Cruciate ligaments

Since the tibiofemoral joint is not naturally congruent, the joint capsule and ligaments outside the joint would not be enough to secure the joint fully. Therefore two cruciate ligaments cross in the centre of the joint, preventing slippage of the femur on the tibia. When the knee is in extension, the anterior ligament is under tension. When the knee is flexed, the posterior ligament is under tension. In addition, during knee flexion, they rotate around each other during internal rotation and unwind to run parallel to each other during external rotation.

  • The anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) travels diagonally from the back of the lateral femur condyle to the ventral, caudal and medial part of the tibia, just anterior to the intercondylar eminence
  • The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) lies diagonally between the lateral surface of the medial femur condyle and the dorsolateral area, posterior to the intercondylar eminence


Extensors of the knee joint

The Quadriceps femoris is the only extensor of the knee joint. Therefore it plays a key role in every movement involving the stretching of the knee (e.g. walking, climbing stairs, rising from the sitting position). In addition it keeps the knee from buckling when standing. The femoral nerve innervates all four muscular comonents.

Learn the muscles surrounding the knee joint quickly with our Lower Extremity Muscle Anatomy Chart. 

The Rectus femoris forms the central part of the quadriceps muscle. It originates from the anterior inferior iliac spine and it is responsible for extension of the knee, as well as some flexion of the hip.

The vastus intermedius lies beneath the rectus femoris. Medially is the vastus medialis and laterally the vastus lateralis, both originating from the linea aspera. All of the the four heads insert via a common patellar tendon onto the tibial tuberosity. The vastus muscles have no direct effect on the movement of the hip.

Flexors of the knee joint

Sartorius is the longest muscle in the human body. It originates from the anterior superior iliac spine and crosses to the medial side. It then joints together with the tendons of gracilis and semitendinosus to form the pes anserinus that inserts on the medial surface of the proximal end of the tibia. The muscle causes weak hip flexion and weak abduction.

Semitendinosus originates from the ischial tuberosity and also inserts as part of the pes anserinus. Its function is the flexion and external rotation of the knee, as well as extension and some external rotation and adduction of the hip.

Semimembranosus also originates from the ischial tuberosity. It inserts on the medial condyle of the tibia where the tendon separates into three parts. One weaves into and strengthens the medial cruciate ligament and one turns superolateral and into the dorsal oblique popliteal ligament. The last part of the tendon remains at the dorsal side of the medial tibial plateau.

Popliteus is a small muscle that stabilizes the knee, and unlocks it (by lateral rotation). Parts of its fibers also merge with the joint capsule.

Gastrocnemius together with the soleus, form the triceps surae and merge into the Achilles tendon. As it originates from back of the femoral condyles, it causes some knee flexion.


  • Extension - In a fully extended position, rotation of the knee is not possible since the collateral as well as the cruciate ligaments are stretched.
  • Terminal rotation - To reach full extension, a slight internal rotation of 5-10° is necessary. This is known as the terminal rotation, where the knee locks.
  • Flexion - This movement can be accompanied by some degree of internal or external rotations.

Blood supply

The femoral artery and the six genicular branches of the popliteal artery supply the joint.

Nerve supply

The tibial nerve, common fibular nerve, and saphenous nerve innervate the knee joint.

Clinical notes

The knee is a vulnerable joint and is also exposed to a lot of pressure and movement. After fractures, the most common injuries are tears of the tendons or the menisci that mainly occur through non-physiological movement and pressure. The ACL is frequently ruptured, and when the medial collateral and medial meniscus are also damaged, the injury is called ‘O’Donaghue’s triad’. Depending on the location and extent of the ligamentous injury, treatment can be conservative or surgical. The bursa can become infected, causing painful bursitis and osteoarthritis also commonly occurs.

Knee joint: want to learn more about it?

Our engaging videos, interactive quizzes, in-depth articles and HD atlas are here to get you top results faster.

Sign up for your free Kenhub account today and join over 1,265,059 successful anatomy students.

“I would honestly say that Kenhub cut my study time in half.” – Read more. Kim Bengochea Kim Bengochea, Regis University, Denver

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Author, review and layout:

  • Sarah Schroth
  • Shahab Shahid
  • Catarina Chaves
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