Clinical Review

Comparison of Lateral Retinaculum Release and Lengthening in the Treatment of Patellofemoral Disorders

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For lateral retinaculum (LR) tightness, release or lengthening is the indicated surgical correction. LR release (LRR) or lengthening (LRL) may be a primary treatment for painful lateral compression syndrome or as an adjunct treatment in the setting of patellofemoral instability.

Although it is challenging, assessment of the soft-tissue balance between the medial restraint (the medial patellofemoral ligament) and the lateral restraint (the lateral retinaculum) is fundamental to a good outcome.

LRR and LRL are effective in the treatment of patellofemoral disorders in which lateral tightness is part of the pathology. Understanding the indications for treatment is essential. Although both procedures have standard postoperative complications, LRL as an alternative to LRR maintains lateral soft-tissue integrity and avoids iatrogenic medial patellar laxity, which is a serious complication with LRR. For these reasons, we recommend using LRL to address LR tightness in patellofemoral disorders.



Take-Home Points

  • Understanding the indications for treatment is essential.
  • Identifying the superficial (oblique fibers) and deep layers (transverse fibers) of the LR is very important and can lengthen the LR by as much as 20 mm.
  • Open procedures reduce the risk of hematomas and related pain.
  • The goal is to obtain 1 or 2 patellar quadrants of medial and lateral patellar glide in extensino and a neutral patella.
  • If the Z-plasty is combined with the MPFL reconstruction or tibial tubercle transfer, the LR is set to length after the tubercle transfer and before the MPFL reconstruction (to avoid overconstraint).

Anterior knee pain is a common clinical problem that can be challenging to correct, in large part because of multiple causative factors, including structural/anatomical, functional, alignment, and neuroperception/pain pathway factors. One difficult aspect of anatomical assessment is judging the soft-tissue balance between the medial restraints (medial patellofemoral ligament [MPFL]; medial quadriceps tendon to femoral ligament; medial patellotibial and patellomeniscal ligaments) and the lateral restraints (lateral retinaculum [LR] specifically). Both LR tightness and patellar instability can be interpreted as anterior knee pain. Differentiating these entities is one of the most difficult clinical challenges in orthopedics.

LR release (LRR) has been found to improve patellar mobility and tracking. 1 In the absence of clearly defined guidelines, the procedure quickly gained in popularity because of its technical simplicity and the enticing "one tool fits all" treatment approach suggested in early reviews. Injudicious use of LRR, alone or in combination with other procedures, led to iatrogenic instability and chronic pain. LR lengthening (LRL) was introduced to address LR tightness while maintaining lateral soft-tissue integrity and avoiding some of the severe complications of LRR. 2

Today, isolated use of LRR/LRL is recommended only for treatment of LR tightness and pain secondary to lateral patellar hypercompression. 3 It can also be used as an adjunct treatment in the setting of patellofemoral instability. LRR/LRL should never be used as primary treatment for patellofemoral instability.

In this review of treatments for LR tightness and patellofemoral disorders, we compare the use of LRR and LRL.


LR procedures are indicated for LR tightness, which is assessed by taking a history, performing a physical examination, and obtaining diagnostic imaging. Decisions should be based on all findings considered together and never on imaging findings alone.

Physical Examination

The physical examination should include assessment of limb alignment, patellar mobility, muscle balance, and dynamic patellar tracking.

Limb Alignment. Abnormal valgus, rotational deformities, and increased Q-angle are associated with LR tightness. Valgus alignment can be assessed on standing inspection; rotational deformities with increased hip anteversion by hip motion with the patient in the prone position (increased hip internal rotation, decreased hip external rotation); and Q-angle on weight-bearing standing examination and with the patient flexing and extending the knee while seated.

Patellar Mobility. The patellar glide and tilt tests provide the most direct evaluations of LR tightness. Medial displacement of <1 quadrant is consistent with tightness, and displacement of >3 quadrants is consistent with laxity. In full extension, the patellar glide test evaluates only the soft-tissue restraints; at 30 ° flexion, it also evaluates patellofemoral engagement. The patellar tilt test measures the lifting of the lateral edge of the patella. With normal elevation being 0° to 20°, lack of patellar tilt means the LR is tight, and tilt of >20 ° means it is loose. MPFL patency can be examined with the Lachman test; the examiner rapidly moves the patella laterally while feeling for the characteristic hard endpoint of lateral translation.

Muscle Balance. The tone, strength, and tightness of the core (abdomen, dorsal, and hip muscles) and lower extremities (quadriceps, hamstrings, gastrocnemius) should be evaluated.

Dynamic Patellar Tracking. The J-sign is the course (shaped like an inverted J) that the patella takes when it is medialized into the trochlea from its laterally displaced resting position as the knee goes from full extension to flexion. The J-sign can be associated with LR tightness, trochlear dysplasia, and patella alta.


Although we cannot provide a comprehensive review of the imaging literature, the following radiologic examinations should be used to assess the patellofemoral joint.

30° Lateral Radiograph.  Increased tilt is seen when the lateral facet is not anterior to the patellar ridge. Also evaluated are trochlear anatomy, patellar height, and other factors involved in patellofemoral disorders.

30° Flexed Axial (Merchant) Radiograph. Patellar tilt, subluxation, and trochlear dysplasia are evaluated. Images obtained with progressive flexion can be very useful in verifying patellar tilt reduction. Lack of reduction during early flexion

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