The meniscus is the piece of cartilage that sits between the shinbone and thigh bone and acts as a shock absorber for the legs. There are two menisci in each knee joint. A meniscus can be torn or damaged during activities that put pressure on the knee joint or involve sudden pivots.
The meniscus usually tears when a person twists their upper leg while the foot is planted and knee bent. Meniscus tears are very common, especially among athletes, but can happen to anyone – sometimes by simply getting up too quickly from a squat.
A tear in the meniscus is often accompanied by a popping sound around the knee joint. Symptoms of a torn meniscus include:
Contact your doctor if any of these symptoms persist for more than a few days after the initial injury. Seek immediate medical attention if your knee locks and you’re unable to bend it after straightening it.
Diagnosing a torn meniscus will require a physical exam from your doctor. Typically, they’ll examine and test for a range of motion. Some doctors may perform a McMurray test to look for a meniscal tear. A McMurray test involves bending the knee, straightening and rotating it.
If your doctor suspects a torn meniscus after a physical exam, they will likely order imaging exams to confirm the tear, such as:
Once a meniscal tear has been diagnosed, your doctor may recommend conservative, non-surgical approaches to treat it. One way to do this is by way of the R.I.C.E. method:
Taking an over-the-counter medication can also help reduce the pain and swelling. Physical therapy may also be recommended to strengthen the surrounding muscles, increase knee mobility and stability and reduce pain.
If the knee isn’t responding to self-care methods, your doctor may recommend arthroscopic surgery. This type of surgery is minimally invasive and requires an arthroscope to be inserted into the knee joint through a small incision. This will allow the surgeon to see inside your joint and use small surgical instruments to repair the tear.
Meniscus surgery has a very high success rate and surgery typically only lasts an hour. Recovery from meniscus surgery takes about two weeks and frequent physical therapy to get you back to normal activity.