A torn meniscus often happens suddenly during sports or other activities that cause a person to twist, rotate, bend, or lift very heavy objects. A torn meniscus causes a knee pain that often worsens over the span of a few days.
For some people with a torn meniscus, a doctor may recommend physical therapy to strengthen the surrounding muscles. Often physical therapy is recommended in conjunction with conservative or surgical management.
Contents of this article:
Here are some key points about torn meniscus. More detail and supporting information is in the main article.
- It most often occurs in athletes.
- The symptoms are obvious, usually with severe knee pain.
- Treatment depends on the severity of the tear.
- Surgery or physical therapies are typical treatments.
What is a torn meniscus?
The knee has two curved pieces of cartilage that cushion the area between the thighbone (femur) and the shinbone (tibia) and provide stability to the kneecap.
These tough, rubbery pieces of cartilage are called the menisci. When these pieces of cartilage tear, a torn meniscus occurs.
Causes and risk factors for a torn meniscus
The menisci are two strong pieces of cartilage found in the knee. When one tears, it is known as a torn meniscus. This type of injury is common for athletes.
Anyone who performs activities that cause the knee to bend or twist more than normal is at risk for a torn meniscus.
Sports injuries are the most common cause. Sometimes direct contact such as a football tackle causes a torn meniscus.
Individuals with an increased risk include athletes, especially those that play contact sports, and dancers.
Additionally, older adults naturally have an increased risk of knee injuries including a torn meniscus due to age-related knee changes and degeneration. When this happens, there is often no direct incident that causes the damage.
Anyone with a previous knee injury may also be at higher risk for a meniscus tear that happens simultaneously due to the trauma that caused the other injury.
Symptoms of a torn meniscus
Knee pain is the most obvious symptom. Some people may even feel a popping sensation at the time of injury. Common symptoms of a torn meniscus include:
- swelling and stiffness in the affected knee
- pain in the knee
- difficulty straightening the knee
- feeling like the knee is locked
- limited range of motion
- a sensation of the knee giving out
A torn meniscus is a common injury for athletes, and is especially common in contact sports.
Many people with a torn meniscus can still walk with the injury. Some athletes may even continue to play their sport with the injury, especially immediately after the incident as it may take several days for the stiffness and swelling to develop fully.
If activity continues for too long, a piece of the meniscus may break off and drift into the joint causing more severe symptoms, including:
- slipping kneecap
- painful popping in the knee
- locking knee
How is a torn meniscus diagnosed?
While some people continue to walk or play sports with a torn meniscus, getting the injury correctly diagnosed is crucial to proper treatment and recovery.
A doctor will likely start by reviewing the person's medical history and symptoms. The doctor will then examine the knee to check for swelling and tenderness along the joint line.
During this examination, a doctor may perform the McMurray test. To do so, the doctor will bend and straighten the person's knee and then rotate it. While doing so, the doctor will listen for a clicking sound that indicates a meniscus tear.
Because many other knee problems mimic a torn meniscus, a doctor will likely order imaging tests, such as an MRI, to see if there is any damage to the cartilage or any other soft tissues.
Though an X-ray will not show a torn meniscus, a doctor may still choose to do one to be sure there are no injuries to the surrounding bones or to rule out another condition, such as osteoarthritis.
If the tear in the meniscus is severe, a knee arthroscopy procedure may be carried out.
People with a torn meniscus have several treatment options. Treatment for a torn meniscus includes the following:
- conservative management
- physical therapy
Doctors consider conservative management of a torn meniscus if the tear is small. Conservative management includes the RICE method, which is a combination of the following:
- Resting the area to give it a chance to heal.
- Icing the area to reduce swelling and pain.
- Compressing the area to reduce swelling and provide support to the area.
- Elevating the area while resting to reduce swelling.
A doctor may recommend surgery if the tear is severe. There are several surgical treatments available including the following:
- Knee arthroscopy is a procedure in which a doctor makes a small incision in the knee and inserts a camera to look for any damaged tissue. The doctor will then repair or remove the torn meniscus.
- Partial meniscectomy is a procedure where the surgeon trims away a portion of the meniscus
- Meniscus repair is a procedure in which the surgeon uses sutures to stitch together the torn portion of the meniscus.
After surgery, the doctor will advise the person with the torn meniscus on how long to rest and when to seek physical therapy. The individual should follow their doctor's recommendation to ensure proper healing.
A doctor will recommend an appropriate course of treatment that normally includes a combination of the above methods.
What is the recovery time for torn meniscus?
If the tear is properly treated and managed, most people can expect to make a full recovery, and athletes generally return to their pre-injury capabilities. Degenerative meniscal tears tend to be part of a severe arthritis flare that will lessen over time.
Torn meniscus prevention
The only way to prevent and avoid a torn meniscus is to avoid activities that cause the knees to twist, bend, or rotate in an extreme fashion.
If a person cannot avoid these activities, they should take as much care as possible while participating in them.