What is the meniscus and how can it be injured?
The knee joint is surrounded by a layer of articular cartilage that caps the ends of the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). Another cartilage component, called the meniscus, forms an extra cushion where the leg bones meet to form the knee joint — like a wedged shock absorber that helps distribute weight evenly in the knee.
The meniscus can be injured by trauma or through a degenerative process. Sports injury accounts for most trauma-induced meniscal tears, usually from a bend-and-twist motion. Other injuries may be due to wear-and-tear of more brittle cartilage as part of the aging process. Often meniscal tears occur at the same time other components of the knee are injured.
What are the symptoms of a meniscal tear?
Symptoms of meniscal tear include:
- Popping at the time the injury first occurred.
- Pain or tenderness
- Inability to move knee
- Locked knee at a 45° angle
- Clicking sound when walking
In order to diagnose you properly, your doctor will consider your symptoms, ask you about your activity leading up to the injury, and examine your knee carefully. In addition to examining your knee in specific positions and manipulating its movement, your doctor will likely want you to have X-rays (to check for fractures) or an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging).
Understanding Meniscal Tears
How is a meniscal tear treated?
Your doctor may recommend different treatment options depending on your particular symptoms and the severity of your injury. Together, you will also consider how your injury is affecting your lifestyle and your participation in your favorite activities.
Rest up and stay cool.
Tiny blood vessels feed the edges of the meniscus, giving it the capacity to heal itself in some cases. In addition to asking you to rest, your doctor may prescribe or recommend the use of anti-inflammatory medications (like aspirin or ibuprofen) and cool packs to reduce inflammation and pain.
Get the right moves.
If your doctor determines that you have only a minor meniscal tear, your knee is stable during routine activities, and you completely refrain from participation in any high-risk sports and activities, an easy recovery plan could be right for you. In this case, your doctor may recommend several specific strengthening exercises to perform on your own throughout the day. In addition, your doctor may ask you to commit to a full course of physical therapy.
Understand your surgical options.
If you are still experiencing pain after all other conservative measures have been taken, if your lifestyle is compromised by your limitations, or if your tear is complicated by damage to other knee tissue, your doctor may suggest surgery to repair the tear, help relieve your pain and help restore your mobility. Surgical procedures to treat meniscal tears are aimed at restoring the stability and full function of your knee. Your doctor may recommend a meniscus repair, or a less-invasive procedure called a meniscectomy, in which the torn portion of the meniscus is trimmed and removed.
Commit to feeling better.
After surgery, you will likely be able to go home the same day. You may have to wear a splint or brace for a period of time while you heal. Most people use crutches for the first few weeks. Full recovery from meniscal tear repair may take a few months. During that time, your doctor will recommend physical therapy. Complete rehabilitation often depends on your commitment to following your doctor’s recovery recommendations. It is critical that you don’t return to full activity too soon. Your doctor will help you determine how soon after surgery you can safely begin participating in routine, and then more demanding, activities.