Torn Meniscus

Overview

What is the meniscus?

Two pieces of cartilage sit inside your knee, between your thighbone (femur) and shinbone (tibia). This cartilage is the meniscus. The rubbery wedges of cartilage act like shock absorbers for your knee, providing cushioning for your bones and knee joint.

What is a meniscus tear?

As you get older, the cartilage in your knees wears down and gets weaker. This thinner cartilage can tear more easily. Arthritis (a breakdown of cartilage in the joints) can also lead to a meniscus tear.

How common are meniscus tears?

A torn meniscus is a very common knee injury. Often, athletes and people who play sports for fun suffer meniscus tears. The injury also commonly affects older people and those with arthritis in their knees.

Who might tear a meniscus?

People who play sports (like tennis, soccer, basketball or football) that involve sudden twisting movements are most likely to tear a meniscus. Playing contact sports also increases your risk of a meniscus tear. Getting hit or tackled can make you twist your knee, tearing the cartilage.

Symptoms and Causes

What causes a meniscus tear?

Most often, the meniscus tears during a sudden motion in which your knee twists while your foot stays planted on the ground. The tear frequently occurs while playing sports. People whose cartilage wears down (due to age or arthritis) can tear a meniscus from a motion as simple as stepping on an uneven surface. Sometimes, degeneration from arthritis causes a tear, even without a knee injury.

What are the symptoms of a torn meniscus?

People who tear a meniscus often feel like something has popped in their knee at the time of the injury. Other symptoms include:

  • Feeling like your knee might give out beneath you.
  • Having knee pain or stiffness or a swollen knee.
  • Being unable to fully bend or straighten your leg.

What are the complications of a torn meniscus?

If your torn meniscus doesn’t heal properly, your knee won’t be as stable as it was before the injury. That can increase your risk of other knee injuries — like an ACL tear or other torn ligament.

Diagnosis and Tests

How is a meniscus tear diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will physically examine your knee, looking for signs of swelling. They will test your range of motion. You may also get imaging tests, such as X-rays or an MRI, to assess the damage.

Your provider may recommend knee arthroscopy to better view and accurately diagnose your injury. During this procedure, the surgeon inserts a tiny camera (called an arthroscope) through a small incision into your knee.

Management and Treatment

How can I treat a torn meniscus at home?

Depending on the size and location of your meniscus tear, it may heal without surgery. Your healthcare provider may recommend taking a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) medicine (such as ibuprofen or aspirin) to relieve pain and reduce swelling. In the days following your injury, you should also follow the RICE protocol. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression and elevation.

  • Rest: Keep your weight off the injured knee as much as possible.
  • Ice: Place an ice pack on your knee for about 20 minutes, several times a day.
  • Compression: Wrap your knee with a compression bandage to help reduce swelling.
  • Elevation: Rest with your leg raised higher than your heart to decrease swelling.

Is knee surgery necessary to repair a torn meniscus?

More serious meniscus tears may not heal on their own. If your injury doesn’t improve with RICE, NSAIDs and physical therapy, your healthcare provider may recommend arthroscopic surgery.

Surgery is a very effective way to repair a torn meniscus. If the tear is too big to repair, your surgeon may remove all or part of the meniscus. After recovery, your knee will be more stable, and you’ll be less likely to develop additional knee problems.

Prevention

How can I prevent a torn meniscus?

It can be hard to prevent an accidental injury. But you can reduce your risk of a torn meniscus if you:

  • Strengthen the muscles that support and stabilize your knee.
  • Wear a knee brace if you know your knee is unstable or weak.
  • Work up slowly to more intense exercise activity.
  • Wear athletic shoes that are appropriate for the sport you’re doing.

Outlook / Prognosis

What is the prognosis (outlook) for people with a torn meniscus?

Most people who tear a meniscus can return to full activity. If you have surgery to repair a torn meniscus, your knee should be fully recovered after a few months of physical therapy.

If you have surgery to remove all or part of your meniscus, you may be at higher risk of developing arthritis down the road. That’s because you now have less shock absorption in your joint. Over time, the joint can break down.

Living With

When should I call the doctor?

You should call your healthcare provider if you:

  • Can’t fully bend or straighten your leg without knee pain.
  • Have swelling that doesn’t go away with a few days of RICE and taking NSAIDs.
  • Feel like your knee locks up or might give way underneath you.

What questions should I ask my doctor?

You may want to ask your healthcare provider:

  • How severe is the tear in my meniscus?
  • Is the tear likely to heal on its own?
  • Will I need physical therapy?
  • Do I need surgery to repair or remove the torn meniscus?
  • When will I be able to get back to full activity?
  • What are signs the injury is getting worse instead of healing?

A note from Cleveland Clinic

A torn meniscus is a very common knee injury. It usually results from twisting your knee suddenly. It can happen playing sports, exercising or just doing daily activities. Small tears often heal on their own, while others may require arthroscopic surgery. Most people fully recover from a torn meniscus and can get back to doing their favorite activities without knee pain.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 04/17/2021.

References

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