A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries. Any activity that causes you to forcefully twist or rotate your knee, especially when putting your full weight on it, can lead to a torn meniscus.
Each of your knees has two C-shaped pieces of cartilage that act like a cushion between your shinbone and your thighbone (menisci). A torn meniscus causes pain, swelling and stiffness. You also might feel a block to knee motion and have trouble extending your knee fully.
Conservative treatment — such as rest, ice and medication — is sometimes enough to relieve the pain of a torn meniscus and give the injury time to heal on its own. In other cases, however, a torn meniscus requires surgical repair.
If you've torn your meniscus, you might have the following signs and symptoms in your knee:
Contact your doctor if your knee is painful or swollen, or if you can't move your knee in the usual ways.
A torn meniscus can result from any activity that causes you to forcefully twist or rotate your knee, such as aggressive pivoting or sudden stops and turns. Even kneeling, deep squatting or lifting something heavy can sometimes lead to a torn meniscus.
In older adults, degenerative changes of the knee can contribute to a torn meniscus with little or no trauma.
Performing activities that involve aggressive twisting and pivoting of the knee puts you at risk of a torn meniscus. The risk is particularly high for athletes — especially those who participate in contact sports, such as football, or activities that involve pivoting, such as tennis or basketball.
Wear and tear on your knees as you age increases the risk of a torn meniscus. So does obesity.
A torn meniscus can lead to a feeling of your knee giving way, inability to move your knee normally or persistent knee pain. You might be more likely to develop osteoarthritis in the injured knee.
A torn meniscus often can be identified during a physical exam. Your doctor might move your knee and leg into different positions, watch you walk and ask you to squat to help pinpoint the cause of your signs and symptoms.
In some cases, your doctor might use an instrument known as an arthroscope to examine the inside of your knee. The arthroscope is inserted through a tiny incision near your knee.
The device contains a light and a small camera, which transmits an enlarged image of the inside of your knee onto a monitor. If necessary, surgical instruments can be inserted through the arthroscope or through additional small incisions in your knee to trim or repair the tear.
Treatment for a torn meniscus often begins conservatively, depending on the type, size and location of your tear.
Tears associated with arthritis often improve over time with treatment of the arthritis, so surgery usually isn't indicated. Many other tears that aren't associated with locking or a block to knee motion will become less painful over time, so they also don't require surgery.
Your doctor might recommend:
Physical therapy can help you strengthen the muscles around your knee and in your legs to help stabilize and support the knee joint.
If your knee remains painful despite rehabilitative therapy or if your knee locks, your doctor might recommend surgery. It's sometimes possible to repair a torn meniscus, especially in children and young adults.
If the tear can't be repaired, the meniscus might be surgically trimmed, possibly through tiny incisions using an arthroscope. After surgery, you will need to do exercises to increase and maintain knee strength and stability.
If you have advanced, degenerative arthritis, your doctor might recommend a knee replacement. For younger people who have signs and symptoms after surgery but no advanced arthritis, a meniscus transplant might be appropriate. The surgery involves transplanting a meniscus from a cadaver.
Avoid activities that aggravate your knee pain — especially sports that involve pivoting or twisting your knee — until the pain disappears. Ice and over-the-counter pain relievers can be helpful.
The pain and disability associated with a torn meniscus prompt many people to seek emergency care. Others make an appointment with their family doctors. Depending upon the severity of your injury, you might be referred to a doctor specializing in sports medicine or a specialist in bone and joint surgery (orthopedic surgeon).
Before an appointment, be prepared to answer the following questions:
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