The McMurray test is a physical examination doctors use for knee injuries. A positive McMurray test means a person likely has a meniscal tear, otherwise known as a knee injury.

The femur and tibia are two bones that meet to form the knee joint. Two pieces of fibrocartilage — known collectively as the meniscus — act as shock absorbers between the two bones and assist with knee stability.

Meniscus tears are common injuries. A person can experience them due to acute trauma from playing contact sports or degenerative changes that occur over time.

Doctors may use various diagnostic techniques to diagnose meniscal tears, one of which is the McMurray test.

This article examines the McMurray test and what a positive result may mean. It also discusses the accuracy of the test, what may happen after a positive result, and potential treatments for knee injuries.

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A healthcare professional may perform the McMurray test if they suspect a person has a torn meniscus. They use it as a preliminary exam to help identify the cause of the knee’s pain, swelling, and reduced motion.

The McMurray test may include the following steps:

  • A doctor will ask a person to lie on their back and bend their knee.
  • While applying pressure and internally rotating the leg, the doctor will extend the knee.
  • A doctor will then apply pressure and externally rotate the leg while extending the knee.
  • They will then straighten the leg.

The examination places mild stress on the meniscus that mimics the tension applied to the knee in a person’s daily routine. During the examination, the doctor will ask the individual whether they are experiencing pain and feel and listen for popping in the knee.

Read more about knee injuries, including ways to prevent and treat them.

A positive McMurray test occurs when the physical examination results in the presence of pain and the joint making a sound that:

  • pops
  • clicks
  • snaps
  • clunks
  • thuds

A painful click on the inward rotation indicates a tear to the lateral meniscus, which sits outside the knee. A painful click on the outward rotation suggests a medial meniscus tear, which sits on the inside of the knee.

Sensitivity and specificity describe the accuracy of a test in reporting the presence or absence of a medical condition. The sensitivity is the test’s ability to determine positive cases correctly, and the specificity is the test’s ability to determine negative cases correctly.

Evidence from 2022 notes that the McMurray test has a sensitivity of 61% and a specificity of 84%. However, some studies have reported sensitivity ranging between 16­–70% and specificity ranging between 59–97%.

The accuracy of the test may vary so widely because there are several different methods of performing it. By contrast, 2022 evidence notes that an MRI is 93% sensitive and 88% specific for medial meniscus tears and 79% sensitive and 96% specific for lateral meniscus tears.

The McMurray test is not very accurate in diagnosing a meniscus tear. Still, it may be only the first step a healthcare professional takes to diagnose a knee injury.

The McMurray test is a preliminary examination. Doctors may need to combine it with other physical examinations, such as the Thessaly test and Apley’s test, and imaging tests to reach a diagnosis.

Imaging tests, such as X-rays, MRIs, and ultrasounds, provide doctors with an overall picture of the knee so they can pinpoint the damage inside the joint.

Some people may also require a minimally invasive procedure called an arthroscopy to diagnose a knee injury. A knee arthroscopy uses a tiny camera to see inside the knee joint.

Treatment for a meniscus tear depends on its size, type, location, and severity.

Many tears that do not cause the knee to lock or prevent knee motion will become less painful over time and will not require surgery. However, a doctor may recommend the following nonsurgical treatments:

  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs): NSAIDs, such as ibuprofen, aspirin, and naproxen, reduces pain and swelling in the knee.
  • Corticosteroid medication: A doctor may inject steroid medication into the knee to alleviate pain and inflammation.
  • Physical therapy: A doctor may suggest physical therapy to help strengthen the muscles surrounding the knee, which may help stabilize it.
  • RICE: This stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. It may help a person rest the leg and avoid putting weight on it, use cold packs several times a day, wear an elastic compression bandage, and elevate the leg to reduce swelling.

A doctor may recommend arthroscopic surgery if nonsurgical treatments do not improve symptoms.

A surgeon may be able to repair the meniscus in children and young adults. However, if a surgeon cannot repair the tear, they may trim away the damaged meniscus tissue, so the knee can regain a full range of motion and bear weight again.

After the knee heals, a doctor will advise rehabilitation exercises to restore knee mobility and strength. People with a torn meniscus usually return to full activity after treatment.

It is not always possible to prevent an injury, but people can reduce their risk of a torn meniscus by:

  • gradually working up to intense exercise
  • wearing a knee brace if the knee is weak
  • strengthening the muscles that stabilize the knee
  • wearing the correct athletic shoes during sports
  • resting between workouts

The McMurray test is a physical examination doctors use to diagnose a meniscus tear. They may combine it with other physical checks and imaging tests.

A person may have a meniscus tear if their knee makes a clicking or popping sound during the examination. However, the test is less accurate at diagnosing a torn meniscus than an MRI.

Treatment for a meniscus tear depends on its severity. A doctor may suggest nonsurgical treatments, such as pain relievers and physical therapy, or for more severe tears, they may recommend surgery.

Most people fully recover from meniscus tears and return to their usual daily activities.