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Posterior cruciate ligament injury

James MacDonald, MD, MPH, FAAFP, FACSM
Richard Rodenberg, MD
Section Editor
Francis G O'Connor, MD, MPH, FACSM
Deputy Editor
Jonathan Grayzel, MD, FAAEM


The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) is the primary restraint to posterior translation of the tibia at the knee joint [1-4]. The bulk of injuries to this ligament occur in combination with other internal derangements of the knee in association with multi-ligament trauma; isolated PCL injuries are uncommon [5,6]. The PCL is the knee ligament least frequently injured during sports [5-7]. Over time, increasing knowledge of the anatomy and biomechanics of this ligament has highlighted its importance with regard to knee stability and function. As isolated injury is uncommon, the natural history of injury has yet to be elucidated fully.

The presentation, evaluation, diagnosis, and nonoperative management of PCL injuries are reviewed here. Other knee injuries and an overall approach to knee complaints in active adults are discussed separately. (See "Anterior cruciate ligament injury" and "Medial collateral ligament injury of the knee" and "Lateral collateral ligament injury and related posterolateral corner injuries of the knee" and "Approach to the adult with knee pain likely of musculoskeletal origin" and "Approach to the adult with unspecified knee pain".)


The posterior cruciate ligament (PCL) is the largest and strongest of the intra-articular ligaments of the knee, originating at the lateral border of the medial femoral condyle and inserting at the posterior tibia in a depression called the PCL facet (fovea centralis) that lies between the medial and lateral tibial plateaus (picture 1 and figure 1 and figure 2) [1,2,8,9]. The PCL is considered an intra-articular but extra-synovial structure because of the synovial sheath that lines the ligament [4]. The extra-synovial location accounts for the limited swelling seen with isolated PCL injuries. Due to its association with the posterior capsule, blood supply to the PCL is not permanently lost with an intrasubstance tear. This permits primary surgical repair in some cases of PCL injury [9].

The PCL is structurally divided into two distinct yet inseparable bundles identified as the larger anterolateral (AL) and the smaller posteromedial (PM) bundles. These bundles are distinguished based on function, with each bundle exhibiting different patterns of tension and relaxation depending upon the degree of knee flexion [1,2,8,9]. The PCL works in concert with the meniscofemoral ligaments, which together make up the PCL complex. The meniscofemoral ligaments originate from the posterior horn of the lateral meniscus and insert on the medial femoral condyle anterior to the PCL (ligament of Humphrey inserts anteriorly) and posteriorly to the PCL (ligament of Wrisberg inserts posteriorly). While anchoring the lateral meniscus, these ligaments also act as a secondary restraint to posterior tibial translation [2,4,8,9].

The primary role of the PCL complex is to restrict posterior translation of the tibia with respect to the femur, while also acting as a secondary restraint to external rotation [2,8]. In addition, the PCL protects the extended knee from varus and valgus stress. The role of the PCL in providing posterior knee stability increases as the knee is brought into flexion. The PCL provides 95 percent of posterior stability when the knee is flexed between 30 and 90 degrees [8]. Each bundle of the PCL contributes to joint stability based upon its distinctive fiber orientation in relation to the degree of knee flexion [1,2,8]. Essentially, tension in each bundle develops in a reciprocal fashion during knee flexion and extension: The AL bundle becomes slack in extension but progressively more taut with knee flexion; the PM bundle is tight in extension but becomes progressively more slack with knee flexion [1,8]. Therefore, it may be more useful to consider the PCL as a single, complex structure with a continuum of fibers of different lengths and varying tensions depending on the degree of knee flexion [8].

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Literature review current through: Oct 2017. | This topic last updated: Jun 08, 2017.
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