The current criterion used by the automotive industry for injury to the lower extremity is based on visible bone fracture. Studies suggest, however, that chronic joint degeneration may occur after subfracture impact loads on the knee. We hypothesized that subfracture loading of the patellofemoral joint could result in previously undocumented microtrauma in areas of high contact pressure. In the current study, seven patellofemoral joints from human cadavers were subjected to impact with successively greater energy until visible fracture was noted. Transverse and comminuted fractures of the patella were noted at 6.7 kN of load. Approximately 45% of the impact energy then was delivered to the contralateral joint. Subfracture loads of 5.2 kN resulted in no gross bone fracture in five of seven specimens. Histological examination of the patellae revealed occult trauma in four of the seven specimens in the subfracture group; trauma consisted of a horizontal split fracture in the subchondral bone, at the tidemark, or at the interface of calcified cartilage and subchondral bone. The trauma appeared predominantly on the lateral facet, adjacent to or directly beneath preexisting fibrillation of the articular surface. Surface fibrillation was noted in histological sections of control patellae (not subjected to impact loading), but occult damages were not observed. Although the mechanism of this occult trauma is unknown, similar damage has been shown to occur from direct shear loading. As these microcracks can potentiate a disease process in the joint, this study may suggest that the current criterion for injury, based on bone fracture alone, is not sufficiently conservative.