What exactly is a meniscus?
The meniscus consists of two crescent-shaped pieces of cartilage within your knee joint (called the menisci) that help provide cushioning and shock absorption as you move. Each time you step, the menisci spread the impact of your body weight across the larger knee area and prevent the bones of your knee from impacting each other. As your knee bends, the incredibly smooth and strong surface of menisci also prevent the bones from grinding against each other as your knee goes through its full range of motion. The shape of the menisci helps keep the bones in place and add to the overall stability of your knee.
What causes a meniscus to tear?
Unfortunately, as strong as the menisci are, it can take something as simple as an awkward twist or contact to the knee to cause the meniscus to tear. Because of this, meniscus tears are fairly common in sports that require movements like twisting, squatting, jumping or changing direction quickly. In fact, meniscus tears are one of the most common knee injuries, affecting approximately 1 million people in the US each year.1
The meniscus can tear from acute injury to the knee or from normal wear and tear over time. And while tears can happen to anyone of any age, older athletes are at a higher risk because the meniscus weakens over time.
Regardless of how they happen, meniscus tears can be extremely painful and, in some cases, cause the knee to stop functioning.
Myth: "I'd know if I tore my meniscus"
Fact: The only person who can accurately diagnose a torn meniscus is a doctor. Some of the symptoms associated with a torn meniscus are:
- A popping noise or feeling at the time of the injury
- Pain or stiffness in the knee joint
- Difficulty bending or straightening your knee
- A tendency for your knee to get stuck or "lock up" when you try to move
- An audible "clicking" sound when your knee moves
Like many soft tissue injuries, the initial pain might not be that bad, even allowing you to continue the activity that caused the injury. However, as your body responds to the tear and the swelling begins, the amount of pain often increases.
Myth: "A torn meniscus will heal itself"
Fact: Unfortunately, the reality is that many meniscal tears won't heal on their own. This is because there are actually several different types of meniscus tears that affect different areas of the menisci. For example, a small tear in the outer edges of the meniscus, where there is a rich supply of blood, may be able to repair itself over time. However, a tear closer to the center of the meniscus where there is no blood flow, will require intervention. If left untreated, a torn meniscus will continue to cause pain, limit your activity, and in some cases, get worse or develop into long-term problems such as arthritis.
If I have a torn meniscus, what are my options?
Meniscus tears can sometimes be treated without surgery, depending on the severity and location of the injury.
Some common, non-surgical treatments include:
- Anti-inflammatory medication (i.e. aspirin and ibuprofen)
- The RICE protocol - Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
- Physical therapy
Surgical Treatment Options
The goal of any meniscal surgery is to provide pain relief and restore function to the knee. Surgeons also try to reduce the opportunity for further damage to the knee as a result of the injury. Currently, surgeons have two primary treatment options to address a torn meniscus: repair it or remove at least the damaged portion.
Important safety notes
Individual results may vary. There are risks associated with any surgical procedure including meniscus repair. Meniscus repair is not recommended for everyone. Consult your physician to determine if this procedure is right for you.
The information listed on this site is for informational and educational purposes and is not meant as medical advice. Every patient's case is unique and each patient should follow his or her doctor's specific instructions. Please discuss nutrition, medication and treatment options with your doctor to make sure you are getting the proper care for your particular situation.
Postoperative care is individualized and is determined by the physician based on the patient's symptoms, injury pattern, unique patient anatomy, patient medical history, and individual treatment requirements. Not all patients will have the same surgical procedure or timelines for rehabilitation.
- Kim S, Bosque J, Meehan JP, Jamali A, Marder R. Increase in Outpatient Knee Arthroscopy in the United States: A Comparison of National Surveys of Ambulatory Surgery, 1996 and 2006. J Bone Joint Surg Am. 2011;93:994-1000.