Whether you are an athlete or a weekend warrior, being aware of how to prevent injuries are of the utmost importance. Meniscus tears can occur in people of all ages!
What is a meniscus? There are actually two menisci in each knee that distribute the weight of the body and reduce friction in the knee. The menisci sit in the knee joint between the femur and the tibia along with cartilage, a smooth, gliding layer that allows pain-free motion at the joint. The menisci are crescent-shaped fibrocartilage structures that protect the cartilage from damage and allow the joint to continue to move freely. The meniscus on the medial (inside) part of the knee is larger and the meniscus on the lateral (outside) part of the knee is smaller and more circular. Toward the central part of the knee, each of the menisci are attached to the tibia in the front and back. The shape and attachments of the menisci within the knee are essential to the function of protecting the cartilage in the knee from damage with activity such as walking, running, and playing sports.
How do meniscus tears occur? Meniscus tears can occur from an injury, ‘wear and tear’ or early arthritis of the knee. Tears from an injury usually happen when a person twists awkwardly on the knee or has a collision or fall. Meniscus tears from trauma can occur alone or in combination with ligament injuries. Without an injury, meniscus tears can also occur, but the onset of pain is usually more gradual. This typically happens in arthritis cases when the cartilage in the knee starts to get thin or wear out. Meniscus tears can often be an early sign that the cartilage in the knee is not healthy.
What are common injury symptoms? Symptoms of a meniscus tear can include: pain on the knee joint over the meniscus, pain with bearing weight on the affected knee, pain with twisting, turning, or pivoting on the knee such as getting in and out of bed or a car. The knee will often swell with a meniscus tear.
How are meniscus tears treated? Treatment of meniscus tears varies on the nature of the injury and the needs and demands of each patient. Traumatic meniscus injuries are generally treated with surgery to either repair the meniscus or remove a portion of the meniscus that is no longer functional. The meniscus only has a blood supply to certain parts and that blood supply decreases with age. Therefore meniscus repair may not be appropriate for all meniscus injuries or all patient ages. Recovery from meniscus surgery ranges from several weeks to several months and can include bracing, crutches, and physical therapy. Meniscus tears that happen without an injury are typically treated with a period of rest, activity modification, ice, elevation, physical therapy, possible bracing, and occasionally an injection. Sometimes these tears may also require surgical management.
If you suspect a meniscus tear, it is important to be evaluated by an orthopedic care provider so that the most appropriate treatment can be provided.
Dr. Moira McCarthy is an orthopedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine. She practices at both the HSS Outpatient Center in Stamford, CT and the hospital’s main campus in New York.