Banner Health
Making healthcare easier

Torn Meniscus

A meniscus (which is often called cartilage) is the structure that sits in the knee between the shinbone and thigh bone and acts as a shock absorber for the legs. There are two menisci in each knee joint: the medial meniscus (inside of knee) and the lateral meniscus (outside of knee).

What causes a torn meniscus?

Meniscus tears are very common, especially among athletes, but can happen to anyone. Sometimes they happen because of simple movements, like getting up too quickly from a squat.

A meniscus usually tears when a person twists their upper leg while the foot is planted, and the knee is bent. These are called traumatic tears. The tears usually happen during sudden movements, moments of high impact, or during awkward, off-balance motion. 

Degenerative (atraumatic) tears often occur as you get older. In these cases, small meniscus tears that happen over time aggravate the knee and could require treatment. As the meniscus weakens, traumatic tears can also happen more easily.

You may be at a higher risk for a meniscus tear if you:

  • Play contact sports such as basketball and football
  • Enjoy activities that require pivoting (such as tennis or dancing) or high impact to your joints (like running)
  • Are older and have wear and tear on your knees
  • Are overweight
  • Have a history of knee injury

Symptoms of a meniscus tear

The first sign of a meniscus tear is usually a popping sound around the knee joint. Other symptoms of a torn meniscus include:

  • Swelling
  • Pain
  • A catching or locking feeling in the knee
  • Difficulty moving the knee

If your knee locks and you’re unable to bend or straighten the leg completely, you should get medical help right away. You should also contact a health care provider if any of these symptoms continue for more than a few days after you hurt your knee. 

What injuries are commonly mistaken for a torn meniscus?

The knee is held together by many ligaments (tissue that connects bone to bone) and tendons (tissue that connects muscle to bone).

Other common knee injuries involve ligaments known as the ACL, MCL and PCL. Meniscus tears and ligament injuries all have the same popping sensation when the injury happens. Meniscus tears are more likely to “lock up” the knee, making it difficult to straighten your leg. A ligament tear, however, usually causes the knee to be unstable.

How is a torn meniscus diagnosed?

When you tear a meniscus, other tissues or even the joint surface may also be damaged. Your provider will examine your knee and test your range of motion. This may include bending, straightening and rotating your knee. Imaging tests such as an MRI, ultrasound, x-ray will also help your provider figure out the full extent of the injury and determine the best treatment.

Common treatments for a torn meniscus

If your meniscal tear is small, your provider may recommend the R.I.C.E. method for a few days while it heals:

  • Rest your knee and avoid putting weight on it
  • Ice every three to four hours for 30 minutes
  • Compress or wrap the knee to reduce inflammation
  • Elevate the knee

Taking an over-the-counter (OTC) medication like ibuprofen (Advil/Motrin) or acetaminophen (Tylenol) can also help relieve pain. Physical therapy may also be recommended to strengthen the surrounding muscles as well as your knee’s mobility and stability and reduce pain.

Some meniscus injuries will heal with non-operative treatment. However, if it is an acute tear or you experience prolonged symptoms, surgical treatment may be needed. 

Arthroscopic meniscus surgery

If your knee isn’t responding to treatment or if the injury is severe, your doctor may recommend arthroscopic (knee scope) surgery. This is a minimally invasive surgery where a tiny camera is inserted into your knee joint to look at it from the inside. The surgeon can then use small instruments attached to the scope to repair the damaged tissue.

Meniscus surgery usually only lasts an hour and is very successful. At-home recovery takes about 2-4 weeks. Physical therapy after the surgery can help you get back to your normal activities faster and stronger. 

Like all soft tissue damage, meniscus tears need time to heal. Regardless of treatment, your provider can tell you how long you need to stay on the sidelines before returning to your favorite activity or sport.

Preventing meniscus tears

Meniscus tears can happen due to an accidental injury, but most are degenerative. However, there are a few things you can do to lower your risk:

  • Strength training and flexibility exercises can improve stability and protect your joints 
  • Warm up before sports or exercise and ease into more intense activities
  • If you feel like your knee is unstable or weak, stop high risk activities and see your medical provider
  • Maintain a healthy weight 

What should I do if I think I have a meniscus tear?

If you have a knee injury, contact an orthopedic or sports medicine specialist at Banner Health. You can also take our free Joint Pain Test and learn more about your knee health.