The meniscus is a rubbery piece of cartilage that serves as a cushion between the shinbone and thigh bone, helping stabilize the knee. Meniscus tears may happen due to trauma or in older adults with knee arthritis.

Arthritis can cause joint swelling, pain, and tenderness. There are many forms of arthritis.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), osteoarthritis (OA) is the most common form of arthritis. The degenerative condition mostly affects the knees, hands, and hips.

While meniscus tears commonly happen as a result of sports injuries, people with OA are also at higher risk.

This article discusses how to treat knee meniscus tears with arthritis, the causes of the tears, prevention tips, and the relationship between the two health concerns.

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Treatment for knee meniscus tears may involve:

Medical professionals may recommend surgery for large tears. However, this may increase a person’s risk of developing arthritis.

A surgeon may perform the following procedures to repair a meniscus tear:

  • Partial meniscectomy: This procedure involves removing parts of the torn tissue without touching the rest of the meniscus.
  • Meniscus repair: During a meniscus repair surgery, the doctor stitches the torn tissues back together. Recovery may take longer than a partial meniscectomy, as the tissues require more time to heal. People who undergo this procedure may have to use crutches for a few weeks.

Regardless of the surgical procedure, recovery typically takes about 3 to 6 months.

According to the National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases, some research has found that physical therapy may be as effective as surgery for those with arthritis and meniscus problems. However, it is unclear which type of therapy might be most beneficial.

One 2019 study suggests meniscal injuries can cause cartilage wear and increase a person’s chance of developing early onset OA.

Additionally, an older 2009 study involving people at high risk of developing knee arthritis found that those with meniscal injuries who do not undergo surgery may be more prone to having radiographic knee arthritis.

There is no cure for OA, but some medications may help ease the pain. These are some of them:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): These medications help reduce inflammation. Some NSAIDs are available as creams, so people can apply them to the area they want to treat. Medical professionals may recommend taking NSAID tablets if creams do not improve symptoms.
  • Counterirritants: These OTC products contain ingredients like capsaicin, menthol, and lidocaine that irritate nerve endings, so the painful area feels cold, warm, or itchy to take focus away from the actual pain.
  • Capsaicin cream: This type of cream contains an ingredient derived from hot peppers. By irritating nerve endings, this topical treatment can help mask the pain of arthritis.
  • Corticosteroids: People can take corticosteroids by mouth or receive injections into the affected joint to help reduce pain and swelling.

Lifestyle changes may also help manage OA, the Arthritis Foundation suggests. Some include:

  • regular exercise, avoiding high impact activities that make symptoms worse
  • balance training, which can help improve body control and strength
  • yoga to improve joint flexibility and reduce tension

A person can develop a meniscus tear for two reasons:

  • Trauma: Traumatic meniscus tears are common in people who play sports that may involve knee twist movements, such as football, basketball, and soccer.
  • Degenerative disease: Degenerative tears occur in older adults with a weakened meniscal structure. The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons notes that worn tissue is more likely to tear. Tears due to worn tissue can happen even with slight movements, such as when a person does not twist their knee correctly as they get up from a chair.

A 2017 review notes that orthopedic surgeons frequently encounter older adults with degenerative meniscus tears and OA.

There are things a person can do to help prevent knee injuries and knee meniscal tears.

For example, a 2018 review recommends that athletes add jumping, running, and balance exercises to their warm-up sessions to help prevent knee injuries.

Guidelines published in the Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy note that the following exercises may prevent knee injuries:

  • single-leg hopping forward and backward
  • single-leg squats
  • lunges
  • planks
  • bridges

Arthritis is not preventable, but the following may help a person with symptom management and may slow the development of the disease:

  • managing blood sugar levels
  • exercising regularly and including exercises that help improve strength, balance, and flexibility
  • warming up before exercising to prevent joint and muscle injuries
  • managing stress levels by finding ways to relax
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • managing weight

Recovery from surgery to repair a torn meniscus can take up to 6 months. Recovery takes less time for a meniscectomy — about 3 to 6 weeks.

A doctor will typically recommend a rehabilitation period that involves slowly and carefully getting back to regular activities.

Meniscus tears can happen in people who have knee arthritis. Aging causes the meniscus to weaken, making it more prone to damage.

Most meniscus tears cannot heal on their own. Without treatment, the tear may worsen. The loss of a meniscus can also lead to wear-and-tear arthritis.

People should discuss their treatment options with a doctor to find a solution that allows them to return to regular activities.

Knee meniscus tears commonly occur in people who play sports that require knee twisting, such as football, basketball, and soccer. They can also happen in older adults, especially those with arthritis.

Surgery involves either removing the damaged tissue or repairing the meniscus.

While people cannot prevent arthritis, there are ways to help prevent knee injuries. For example, exercises such as lunges and squats can help strengthen the knee joint and make it more resistant to injury.