Although a meniscus tear is especially common in athletes, anyone can experience such an injury. A meniscus tear is one of the most frequently occurring cartilage injuries of the knee that can be quite painful and debilitating.
At Summit Orthopaedics, our orthopedic surgeons have extensive experience in treating a meniscus tear. They, along with our compassionate staff, are here to help if you experience a torn meniscus.
What is Meniscus?
The meniscus is a C-shaped wedge of cartilage that lies between the thighbone (femur) and the shinbone (tibia) in the knee joint, acting as a shock absorber.
There are two menisci in the knee: one in the inner (medial) side of the knee and one in the outer (lateral) side of the knee. Injuries to either the medial meniscus or the lateral meniscus are common and are often referred to as “torn cartilage.”
Causes of a Meniscus Tear
Meniscal injuries are often associated with a ligament tear in the knee. When a person injures one of the main supporting ligaments of the knee, the knee can become unstable, increasing the chance of a meniscus tear.
However, patients can experience a degenerative meniscus tear without any significant injury to the knee. Tears of the medial (inner) meniscus are more common than tears to the lateral (outer) meniscus.
In younger people, the most common cause of a sudden (acute) meniscal tear is a combined loading and twisting injury to the knee.
Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear
With a meniscus tear, the knee often becomes painful and/or swollen, and the pain becomes worse with certain movements, such as bending or twisting the knee. Some knee maneuvers may produce a “click,” “pop” or sharp pain, which is often localized to the medial or lateral joint line (the space between the thighbone and the shinbone).
If the torn piece of meniscus is large, it may cause the knee to catch, lock, or give way. Catching occurs when the torn meniscus fragment briefly lodges between the bones then works its way out. If the fragment does not work its way out, the knee will remain “locked” and will not fully bend or straighten. Locking can be brief (lasting seconds or minutes) or persistent (lasting weeks). Giving way occurs when the torn piece of meniscus slips out of place, which causes pain and reflex relaxation of the thigh muscles. When the muscles relax, the knee “gives way” or “gives out.”
Diagnosing a Meniscus Tear
Our orthopedic surgeons typically diagnose a meniscus tear with a physical exam, as well as imaging tests to confirm the diagnosis and rule out other potential knee injuries. X-rays cannot detect meniscal injuries but are useful to rule out osteoarthritis, loose pieces of bone, or a broken bone, conditions that may mimic meniscus tear symptoms. Occasionally, an imaging test called Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is required to confirm the diagnosis.
Treatment for a Meniscus Tear
A meniscus tear can be treated with either nonsurgical or surgical treatment options depending on the severity of the tear..
Nonsurgical treatment of meniscus injuries may include activity modification, ice, medication to reduce pain and/or swelling, and physical therapy.
A small meniscus tear that occurs on the outer edge of the meniscus may not require surgical treatment to heal, as this area has a rich blood supply that helps promote healing.
Surgery for a meniscus tear can be approached in a few different ways. Our orthopedic surgeons will explain all of your options to help you make the best decision for your needs.
Arthroscopic surgery may be recommended If a torn meniscus does not heal with nonsurgical treatment, and pain, swelling, or intermittent catching persists.
Arthroscopic surgery allows your orthopedic surgeon to perform the surgery without the need for large incisions. A small camera called an arthroscope is inserted through one small incision, allowing your orthopedic surgeon to view the inside of the knee on a monitor. Operating instruments are inserted through additional small incisions to complete the surgery. Ultimately, these smaller incisions allow for quicker recovery times and less pain after surgery.
In some cases, the damaged meniscus tissue may be simply trimmed away in a procedure called a meniscectomy. In other cases, the torn meniscus can be repaired by suturing it back together.
Recovery After Meniscus Surgery
After meniscus surgery, most patients are able to return home the same day. Medications may be given to help with pain while you recover. Patients will also work with physical therapists after surgery to improve mobility and strength in the knee.
Most patients are able to resume all normal activities once they have fully recovered. Full recovery times can vary based on the type of procedure. Patients who had a meniscectomy often recover within 3 to 4 weeks. Patients who had a meniscus repair procedure will have a longer recovery time, typically about 3 months, to allow the meniscus to heal back together.