A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries. It can be extremely painful and debilitating, but it doesn’t have to sideline you completely. With the proper diagnosis and treatment, you can get back on your feet doing the things you love.
In this article, we’ll cover the following:
- What is a meniscus
- Causes of meniscus tears
- What to watch out for
- Potential Treatments
- How can Michigan Surgery Specialists help?
What is a meniscus?
Each of your knees has two menisci — C-shaped pieces of tough, rubbery cartilage that separate your femur (thighbone) from your tibia (shinbone). They act like shock absorbers, cushioning the joint and keeping these bones from rubbing together. Essentially, your menisci protect your bones from wear and tear, but unfortunately, all it takes is one good twist of the knee or leg to tear a meniscus. It can be extremely painful and cause a lot of uncertainty in one’s mobility and athletic performance.
What causes meniscus tears?
Any activity that causes you to forcefully twist or rotate your knee, especially while bearing weight, can lead to a torn meniscus. Athletes are most susceptible to meniscus tears, especially those who participate in sports that have aggressive pivoting and sudden stops and turns. Basketball players, football players, and martial artists endure them quite often, but a torn meniscus isn’t an injury that discriminates. Tennis players, ice skaters, and even weight lifters can tear a meniscus. These tears are also known to happen when kneeling, squatting, or lifting something heavy.
Older adults are more likely to have what are known as degenerative meniscus tears. Over time, cartilage weakens and wears thin, which makes the tissue more prone to tears. A degenerative meniscus tear is seldom caused by any kind of athletic trauma; simply getting out of a chair awkwardly may tear a meniscus.
What to watch out for (symptoms)
If you tear a meniscus, you may feel a sudden “pop” in your knee. It may not even hurt that bad at first. Many people are still able to walk on an injured knee, and athletes often keep on playing with a tear. After two or three days, the knee will become more sore and swollen. The most common symptoms of a torn meniscus are:
- A popping sensation
- Pain, especially when twisting or rotating your knee
- Swelling or stiffness
- Feeling like your knee is “giving way”
- Difficulty bending and straightening the leg
- The feeling that your knee gets “locked up” or “stuck” when you try to move it
Diagnosing a meniscus tear
If you suspect you have a torn meniscus, your doctor will do a thorough health history and physical examination of your knee. If the injury occurred suddenly, he/she will ask about the more specific events that were happening when it occurred, in order to understand the stresses that were placed on the knee at that time. Athletes are often able to pinpoint the exact time and details of the injury. However, if it’s a chronic knee complaint, the initial injury may not be remembered.
During the physical examination, your orthopedist will evaluate the injury through a series of tests that include palpating the area for warmth and tenderness, testing the range of motion, the power of the quadriceps, and assessing the stability of the ligaments. But in order to rule out other possible injuries, your doctor may order imaging tests.
Because menisci are made out cartilage, they won’t show up on x-rays. But x-rays may show other causes of knee pain, such as osteoarthritis.
MRIs are able to detect both hard and soft tissue, and therefore will be able to confirm whether your meniscus is torn. It’s the best imaging study to detect a torn meniscus. However, just detecting one does not necessarily mean a specific treatment is needed. Treatment depends on several factors, and not all meniscus tears require surgery.
In some cases, your doctor may use an instrument called an arthroscope to take a look inside your knee. This thin tool has a light and a small camera at the end, which is inserted through a tiny incision. The arthroscope transmits an enlarged image of the inside of your knee to a monitor to determine the extent of the tear.
Treatment for a torn meniscus depends on the type, size, and location of the tear. As we mentioned, not all tears require surgery. A conservative approach to treatment using the RICE method (rest, ice, compression, elevation) is often the first approach in acute injuries. Anti-inflammatory medications like ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) or naproxen (Aleve) may help relieve pain. It is best to refrain from putting your full weight on your torn meniscus, so you might need crutches. After the initial injury symptoms have subsided, physical therapy is often recommended.
If conservative treatment fails — or if your injury is detected as severe — arthroscopic surgery may be in order. Using the arthroscope described above, your orthopedist may do one of the following:
- Arthroscopic repair. Through small incisions in the knee, miniature surgical instruments will be used to suture (stitch) the tear together. Your body will absorb these over time.
- Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy. This entails removing a piece of the torn meniscus.
- Arthroscopic total meniscectomy. This is the removal of the whole meniscus.
If you do need arthroscopic surgery, know that it’s very low-risk and compilations are rare.
How can Michigan Surgery Specialists help?
If you suspect you have a torn meniscus, don’t hesitate to make an appointment with Michigan Surgery Specialists. Our team of orthopedics and sports medicine experts can help you learn more about meniscus tears, make a proper diagnosis, and recommend the best treatment options for you. The surgeons at Michigan Surgery Specialist can also help you get back to the activities that you love.