A meniscus tear is a common knee injury often seen in sports. It hurts at the front or sides of your knee. At first, you can still walk on it, but it gets worse with time as your knee swells and hurts more.
To deal with it initially, remember R.I.C.E.: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation. You can also use pain relief, injections, and therapy. Sometimes, surgery may be needed.
In this article, we’ll cover symptoms, diagnosis, and treatments for meniscus tears. We’ll also talk about knee anatomy, which sports are more likely to cause these tears, and how to treat them.
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What is a Meniscus Tear?
A meniscus tear is when a piece of cartilage in your knee, called the meniscus, gets damaged. The meniscus acts like a cushion between your thigh bone (femur) and shin bone (tibia), and you have two of them in each knee.
These tears can happen when you do activities that put stress on your knee joint, like a hard tackle in football or a sudden change in direction in basketball. But you don’t have to be an athlete to get one. Even something as simple as standing up too fast from a squatting position can cause it. It’s quite common, with over 500,000 cases reported in the United States each year, according to Boston Children’s Hospital.
The treatment for a meniscus tear depends on how bad it is and can range from simple home remedies to outpatient surgery. To lower your risk of this injury, you can do exercises to strengthen your leg muscles and use proper techniques during sports or activities.
What causes a meniscus tear?
A meniscus tear usually happens when you injure your knee suddenly, like twisting it during sports. Sports like soccer, football, basketball, baseball, skiing, and wrestling make it more likely.
But, as you get older, your meniscus can weaken and become fragile, leading to tears, especially if you have knee arthritis.
Surprisingly, even simple things like standing up from a chair the wrong way can sometimes cause a meniscus tear.
What are the symptoms of a torn meniscus?
When you have a torn meniscus, there are some clear signs to watch for:
Popping Sound: Your knee may make a popping sound when the tear happens.
Pain: Pain is common, especially when you touch the affected area.
Swelling: Your knee can swell up, making it bigger and uncomfortable.
Limited Mobility: Moving your knee may become difficult, or you might not be able to fully move it.
Locking or Catching: Your knee might feel like it’s getting stuck or catching when you try to move it.
Instability: Your knee may feel unstable, like it’s not providing proper support.
Slipping or Popping Sensation: Sometimes, you might feel a sensation like your knee is slipping or popping, which suggests a piece of cartilage is blocking the joint.
If you notice any of these symptoms for more than a few days, especially after a knee injury, it’s crucial to contact your doctor. If your knee locks and can’t bend after straightening, seek medical attention immediately.
Who is most at risk of a meniscus tear?
Meniscus tears are more common in people aged 40 and older, especially those who play sports that involve sudden stops and changes in direction, like football and skiing. Runners can also get torn menisci, but running itself doesn’t necessarily cause the tear.
As people get older, their knees go through more wear and tear, which can make the meniscus thinner and more prone to tearing. Aging also raises the chances of developing conditions like arthritis, which can increase the risk of a meniscus tear in older individuals.
How is a meniscus tear diagnosed?
Physical Examination: Your healthcare provider will begin by examining your knee to look for swelling and check how well you can move it.
Imaging Tests: You might need X-rays or an MRI to see the inside of your knee and assess the extent of the injury.
Knee Arthroscopy: Sometimes, your provider may suggest knee arthroscopy. This procedure involves inserting a small camera through a tiny incision in your knee to get a precise diagnosis of your injury.
What can make a meniscus tear more likely?
A torn meniscus is a common knee injury that can happen to anyone, but some factors can increase the risk, especially for:
- Athletes in contact sports or sports with quick changes in direction, like tennis and basketball.
- People who are overweight.
- Older individuals, as they may have knee wear and tear.
Treatment Options for Meniscus Tears
If you have a meniscus tear, you don’t always need surgery. Non-surgical treatments often work well.
- Rest and limit activity.
- Apply ice for 15-20 minutes several times a day.
- Use a knee brace to reduce swelling.
- Elevate your leg while resting or icing.
- Your doctor may suggest pain-relieving medication (NSAIDs).
- Sometimes, a cortisone injection can reduce inflammation and pain.
After using R.I.C.E. and getting a proper diagnosis, you’ll likely need physical therapy.
If pain persists after 4-6 weeks of therapy or you can’t return to normal activities, surgery may be an option.
Non-surgical treatments are preferred for meniscus tears from wear and tear. Studies show that for these cases, surgery may not offer better long-term results. For example, supervised exercise therapy improved thigh muscle strength more than surgery for degenerative meniscus tears.
Surgery is best when the tear causes mechanical issues like knee catching or locking. If the tear mainly causes pain, surgery may not provide predictable results.
There are three types of surgery:
- Commonly involves removing the torn part while saving healthy tissue.
- Quick recovery and return to activities.
- Aims to fix the damaged meniscus and restore normal knee anatomy.
- Often has better long-term results compared to removal but requires a longer recovery.
- Replaces a removed meniscus with one from a deceased donor.
- Considered when complete removal leads to ongoing knee pain.
How to Prevent a Torn Meniscus
Strengthen Your Leg Muscles: Regularly do leg-strengthening exercises to make your knee more stable and less prone to injury.
Use Protective Gear: When playing sports or risky activities, consider wearing knee protection or a knee brace.
Maintain Proper Form: To safeguard your knee:
- Warm up and stretch before exercise.
- Wear appropriate sports shoes.
- Lace up your shoes correctly.
- Learn and use proper techniques for your activities.
By following these steps, you can lower the risk of a torn meniscus and maintain healthy knees.