Three bones meet to form your knee joint: your thighbone (femur), shinbone (tibia), and kneecap (patella).
Two wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage act as “shock absorbers” between your thighbone and shinbone. These are called meniscus. They are tough and rubbery to help cushion the joint and keep it stable.
Menisci tear in different ways. Tears are noted by how they look, as well as where the tear occurs in the meniscus. Common tears include bucket handle, flap, and radial.
Sports-related meniscus tears often occur along with other knee injuries, such as anterior cruciate ligament tears.
Radial Tear Degenerative Tear
Bucket Handle Tear Flap Tear
Sudden meniscus tears often happen during sports. Players may squat and twist the knee, causing a tear. Direct contact, like a tackle, is sometimes involved.
Older people are more likely to have degenerative meniscus tears. Cartilage weakens and wears thin over time. Aged, worn tissue is more prone to tears. Just an awkward twist when getting up from a chair may be enough to cause a tear, if the menisci have weakened with age.
You might feel a “pop” when you tear a meniscus. Most people can still walk on their injured knee. Many athletes keep playing with a tear. Over 2 to 3 days, your knee will gradually become more stiff and swollen.
The most common symptoms of meniscus tear are:
- Stiffness and swelling
- Catching or locking of your knee
- The sensation of your knee “giving way”
- You are not able to move your knee through its full range of motion
Without treatment, a piece of meniscus may come loose and drift into the joint. This can cause your knee to slip, pop, or lock.
How your orthopedic surgeon treats your tear will depend on the type of tear you have, its size, and location.
The outside one-third of the meniscus has a rich blood supply. A tear in this “red” zone may heal on its own, or can often be repaired with surgery. A longitudinal tear is an example of this kind of tear.
In contrast, the inner two-thirds of the meniscus lacks a blood supply. Without nutrients from blood, tears in this “white” zone cannot heal. These complex tears are often in thin, worn cartilage. Because the pieces cannot grow back together, tears in this zone are usually surgically trimmed away.
Along with the type of tear you have, your age, activity level, and any related injuries will factor into your treatment plan.
If your tear is small and on the outer edge of the meniscus, it may not require surgical repair. As long as your symptoms do not persist and your knee is stable, nonsurgical treatment may be all you need.
RICE. The RICE protocol is effective for most sports-related injuries. RICE stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation.
- Take a break from the activity that caused the injury. Your doctor may recommend that you use crutches to avoid putting weight on your leg.
- Use cold packs for 20 minutes at a time, several times a day. Do not apply ice directly to the skin.
- To prevent additional swelling and blood loss, wear an elastic compression bandage.
- To reduce swelling, recline when you rest, and put your leg up higher than your heart.
- Physical Therapy
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines. Drugs like aspirin and ibuprofen reduce pain and swelling.
If your symptoms persist with nonsurgical treatment, your doctor may suggest arthroscopic surgery.
Procedure. Knee arthroscopy is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures. In it, a miniature camera is inserted through a small incision (portal). This provides a clear view of the inside of the knee. Your orthopaedic surgeon inserts miniature surgical instruments through other portals to trim or repair the tear.
Removing torn meniscus
Rehabilitation. After surgery, your doctor may put your knee in a cast or brace to keep it from moving. If you have had a meniscus repair procedure, you will need to use crutches for about a month to keep weight off of your knee.
Once the initial healing is complete, your doctor will prescribe rehabilitation exercises. Regular exercise to restore your knee mobility and strength is necessary. You will start with exercises to improve your range of motion. Strengthening exercises will gradually be added to your rehabilitation plan.
For the most part, rehabilitation can be carried out at home, although your doctor may recommend physical therapy. Rehabilitation time for a meniscus repair is about 3 months. A meniscectomy requires less time for healing — approximately 3 to 4 weeks.