Overview of Meniscus Tear
The meniscus is a piece of cartilage that provides a cushion
between your thighbone (femur) and shinbone (tibia). There are two menisci in
each knee joint. They can be damaged or torn during activities that put
pressure on or rotate the knee joint. Taking a hard tackle on the football
field or a sudden pivot on the basketball court can result in a meniscus tear.
You don’t have to be an athlete to get a meniscus tear,
though. Simply getting up too quickly from a squatting position can also cause
a meniscal tear. According to Boston
Children’s Hospital, more than 500,000 meniscal tears take place in the
United States each year.
Treatment options can vary from at-home remedies to
outpatient surgery, depending on the severity of your injury. You can help prevent
this injury by performing exercises that will strengthen your leg muscles and
using proper techniques during contact activities or sports.
Causes of a Meniscus Tear
The meniscus can be torn during activities that cause direct
contact or pressure from a forced twist or rotation. A sudden pivot or turn,
deep squatting, or heavy lifting can lead to injury. Many athletes are at risk
for a meniscus tear. Sports that require sudden turns and stops, such as the
following may put you at higher risk for meniscus tears:
According to Boston
Children’s Hospital, meniscus tears are increasingly common in children.
This is because children are participating in organized sports at an earlier
age. Additionally, when focusing on just one sport, a child is more likely to
experience a meniscus tear. The same is true for teenagers who participate in
The meniscus weakens with age, and tears are more common in
people over the age of 30. Movements like squatting or stepping can lead to
injury in someone with weak menisci. If you have osteoarthritis, you’re at
higher risk of injuring your knee or tearing your meniscus. Osteoarthritis is a
common joint disorder involving pain and stiffness in your joints caused by
aging and wear and tear.
When an older person experiences a meniscus tear, it’s more
likely to be related to degeneration. This is when the cartilage in the knee
becomes weaker and thinner. As a result, it’s more prone to tear.
Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear
When a meniscus tear occurs, you may hear a popping sound around
your knee joint. Afterward, you may experience:
- pain, especially when the area is touched
- difficulty moving your knee or inability to move
it in a full range of motion
- the feeling of your knee locking or catching
- the feeling that your knee is giving way or
unable to support you
You may also experience a slipping or popping sensation,
which is usually an indication that a piece of cartilage has become loose and
is blocking the knee joint.
If you experience any of these symptoms and they persist for
more than a few days or occur after your knee has been injured, you should contact
your doctor. If your knee locks and you’re unable to bend your knee after
straightening it, you should call your doctor.
Diagnosing a Meniscus Tear
After talking about your symptoms, your doctor will examine
your knee and test your range of motion. They will look closely at the spot
where the meniscus is along your joint.
Your doctor also may perform a McMurray test to look for a meniscal tear. This test involves
bending your knee and then straightening and rotating it. You may hear a slight
pop during this test, which can indicate a tear of the meniscus.
Imaging tests may be ordered to confirm a tear of the
meniscus. These include:
This test will not show a meniscus tear. However, it can be
helpful to determine if there are any other causes of your knee pain, like
An MRI uses a magnetic field to take multiple images of your
knee. It will be able to take pictures of cartilage and ligaments to determine
if there’s a meniscus tear.
Ultrasound uses sound waves to take images inside the body.
This will determine if you have any loose cartilage that may be getting caught
in your knee.
While MRIs can be helpful in diagnosing tears in the
meniscus, they aren’t considered 100 percent reliable. According to a study
published in the Journal
of Trauma Management & Outcomes, the MRI’s accuracy for diagnosing
lateral meniscus tears is 77 percent.
Sometimes, meniscus tears may not show up on an MRI because
they can closely resemble degenerative or age-related changes. Sometimes, a
doctor may make an incorrect diagnosis that a person has a torn meniscus. This
is because some structures around the knee can closely resemble a meniscus
tear. However, using an MRI has helped to reduce the need for arthroscopy in
If your doctor is unable to determine the cause of your knee
pain from these techniques, they may suggest arthroscopy to study your knee. If
you require surgery, your doctor will also most likely use an arthroscope. With
arthroscopy, a small incision, or cut, is made near the knee. The arthroscope
is a thin and flexible fiberoptic device that can be inserted through the
incision. It has a small light and camera, and surgical instruments can be
moved through the arthroscope or through additional incisions in your knee. After
an arthroscopy, either for surgery or examination, people can often go home the
Treating a Meniscus Tear
Initially, you should treat the knee injury with conservative
techniques including rest, ice, compression, and elevation (RICE):
your knee, and use crutches to avoid any weight bearing on the joint. Avoid any
activities that worsen your knee pain.
your knee every three to four hours for 30 minutes.
or wrap the knee in an elastic bandage to reduce inflammation.
your knee to reduce swelling.
You can also take medication such as ibuprofen, aspirin, or
any other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medication to reduce pain and
swelling around your knee.
You shouldn’t put full weight on your injured knee if it’s
painful. Your doctor may recommend physical therapy to strengthen the muscles
surrounding your knee. This can help to reduce pain and increase your knee
mobility and stability. Your physical therapist may also use massage techniques
to reduce swelling and stiffness.
According to Hughston Clinic, the
recovery time for conservative treatment of a meniscal tear is between one and
If your knee is not responding to treatment, your doctor may
recommend arthroscopic surgery. Your doctor will give you specific instructions
as to how to prepare for this surgery. Examples include:
- being fitted for crutches before your procedure
and learning how to use them
- completing pre-surgery requirements, such as
blood testing, X-rays, MRI, electrocardiogram (EKG), and other medical clearances,
including an anesthesia clearance
your prescription for pain medication before your procedure
- refraining from eating or drinking anything the
night before your procedure
Notify your doctor if you experience any adverse effects
that could keep you from having your surgery. This includes:
- a fever
- an infection
- a cold
- an open wound
The surgeon will make a small incision in your knee. Your
surgeon will insert tools and a camera through the incision to repair or trim
away the damaged meniscus. The entire procedure typically lasts about an hour.
You can usually go home the same day after this procedure.
Full recovery will take time. However, you can begin participating in physical
therapy exercises within days after surgery.
If your procedure involves a meniscal repair, the recovery
and rehabilitation time is about six weeks. You’ll wear a knee brace or crutches
at this time.
Surgery involves risks, and you should talk with your doctor
to determine if you’re a good candidate for this procedure. The recovery period
will include regular visits to the doctor, as well as physical therapy to
strengthen the muscles supporting your knee.
Tips to Prevent Meniscus Tears
You can prevent meniscus tears by regularly performing
exercises that strengthen your leg muscles. This will help stabilize your knee
joint to protect it from injury.
You can also use protective gear during sports or a brace to
support your knee during activities that may increase your risk of injury.
Always use proper form when exercising or engaging in
activities that may put pressure on your knee joint. It’s a good idea to:
- warm up and stretch before exercising
- use proper gear, such as athletic shoes designed
specifically for your activity
- lace up your footwear properly
- learn the proper techniques for the activities
you engage in
Long-Term Outlook After Surgery
With proper diagnosis and adherence to treatment, your knee
can have the mobility and function it had before the injury. If a meniscus tear
isn’t surgically treated, the potential for healing depends on the location of
the tear. Cartilage doesn’t have a significant blood supply, which can affect
its ability to heal. However, there are some areas of the meniscus, such as the
outer portions, which have more blood vessels and are more likely to heal.