Douglas Mangan, MD, is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center.
Question: My doctor said that I might have a meniscus tear in my knee. What is a meniscus, how do I know if I have a tear, and what can be done about it?
Answer: The meniscus is a cartilage ring or cushion that lies between the two major leg bones that make up the knee joint. There are actually two meniscus rings in the knee joint, one on the inside (or medial) aspect, and one on the outside (or lateral) aspect of the knee.
A meniscus tear can occur as the result of a single traumatic injury, or as the result of a more chronic, degenerative, wear and tear process.
Meniscus tears typically cause sharp pains in the joint, on the inside or outside of the knee. Pain is frequently made worse by deep knee bends and twisting or pivoting motions at the knee. Frequently, pain is accompanied by swelling. Additionally, mechanical symptoms, including clicking, popping, catching, and locking may occur. Osteoarthritis or other internal injuries to the knee can also cause symptoms similar to a meniscus tear.
Evaluation by a physician can frequently confirm the diagnosis and rule out other causes. Your physician may order X-rays or an MRI to assist in making the appropriate diagnosis.
Once present, meniscus tears typically do not heal on their own. Occasionally, they may become less symptomatic over time (i.e. it may be possible to live with a small tear that causes few symptoms). Early on, treatment may consist of ice, rest, and anti-inflammatory medications. Corticosteroid injections can be beneficial in some patients.
For symptoms that persist without improvement, surgical intervention is often recommended. Surgery is performed arthroscopically through two or three small “stab” incisions.
Occasionally, a tear may be repairable, in which case a larger incision may be made to pass stitches and repair the tear. More commonly, instruments the size of a pen or pencil are used to see inside the knee and clean up or trim out the tear. Surgery typically takes less than an hour and is performed on an outpatient basis.
Patients are usually allowed to begin walking right away and typically regain the majority of their strength and motion by four to six weeks. Formal physical therapy is usually not required, but occasionally can be helpful