Meniscus tears are among the most common knee injuries. Anyone at any age can tear a meniscus, but athletes, particularly those who play contact sports, are at higher risk for meniscus tears. When an orthopaedic surgeon references torn cartilage in the knee, they are usually referring to a torn meniscus.
To understand a meniscus tear, it helps to have a general understanding of the knee. There are three bones that meet to form your knee joint:
- Thighbone (femur)
- Shinbone (tibia)
- Kneecap (patella)
Two wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage act as “shock absorbers” between your thighbone and shinbone. These are known as the. They are tough and rubbery to help cushion the joint and keep it stable.
Meniscus tears happen in different ways. Tears are classified by how they look, as well as where the tear occurs. Common tears include bucket handle, flap, and radial. Sports-related meniscus tears often occur along with other knee injuries, such as anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tears.
Causes of a Meniscus Tear
Meniscus tears during sports will happen suddenly. Players may cause a tear by squatting and then twisting the knee. Direct contact, like a tackle, can sometimes be involved.
Older people are more likely to have degenerative meniscus tears. Cartilage weakens and wears thin over time and aged, worn tissue is more prone to tears. Just an awkward twist when getting up from a chair may be enough to cause a tear, if the menisci have weakened with age.
Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear
Most people can still walk on their injured knee, but you might feel a “pop” when you walk after you tear a meniscus. Many athletes are able to continue playing with a tear. Over the course of 2 to 3 days however, your knee will gradually become more swollen and begin to stiffen up.
The most common symptoms of meniscus tear are:
- Stiffness and swelling
- Catching or locking of your knee
- Weakness in the knee
- Restricted range of motion
Without treatment, a piece of meniscus may come loose and drift into the joint. This can cause your knee to slip, pop, or lock.
Treatment for a Meniscus Tear
Treatment for your meniscus tear will depend on the type of tear you have, its size and location.
If your tear is small and on the outer edge of the meniscus, it may not require surgical repair. As long as your symptoms do not persist and your knee is stable, nonsurgical treatment may be all you need. Treatment includes the popular RICE method:
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines like naproxen and ibuprofen may be used with any of the treatments above to help reduce pain and swelling.
If nonsurgical treatment has failed, your orthopaedic surgeon may suggest arthroscopic surgery. Common surgical treatments include:
Knee arthroscopy is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures. During the procedure, a miniature camera is inserted through a small incision. This provides a clear view of the inside of the knee. Your surgeon then inserts miniature surgical instruments through other incisions to trim and repair the tear.
Some meniscus tears can be repaired by using an arthroscopic procedure sutures the torn pieces together. Whether a tear can be successfully treated with repair depends upon the type of tear, as well as the overall condition of the injured meniscus. Because the meniscus must heal back together, recovery time for a repair is much longer than from a meniscectomy.
In a partial meniscectomy, the damaged meniscus tissue is trimmed away using an arthroscopic procedure.
Rehabilitation Following Meniscus Surgery
After surgery, your surgeon may put your knee in a brace to keep it from moving. If you have had a meniscus repair procedure, you will need to use crutches for about a month to keep weight off of your knee.
Once the initial healing is complete, you will prescribed rehabilitation exercises and a physical therapy schedule. Regular exercise to restore your knee mobility and strength is necessary. You will start with exercises to improve your range of motion. Strengthening exercises will gradually be added to your rehabilitation plan.
Rehabilitation time for a meniscus repair is about 3 months. A meniscectomy requires less time for healing approximately 3 to 4 weeks.
Meniscus tears are extremely common knee injuries. With proper diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation, patients often return to their pre-injury abilities.