Meniscus tears are among the most common knee injuries. Athletes, particularly those who play contact sports, are at risk for meniscus tears. However, anyone at any age can tear a meniscus. When people talk about torn cartilage in the knee, they are usually referring to a torn meniscus.
Three bones meet to form your knee joint: your thighbone (femur), shinbone (tibia) and kneecap (patella). Two pieces of cartilage between your thighbone and shinbone act as shock absorbers, which are called meniscus that helps cushion the joint and keep it stable.
There are many types of meniscus tears. Tears are named by location and shape. Common tears include bucket handle, flap, and radial. Sports-related tears often occur in conjunction with other knee injuries, such as anterior cruciate ligament tears or medial cruciate ligament tears.
Sudden tears of the meniscus often occur during sports, but can occur during many activities. Athletes may squat and twist the knee, causing a tear. The same moment can also cause a tear during daily activities in any individual.
Older individuals are more likely to have degenerative tears since cartilage weakens and wears thin over time. An awkward twist when getting up from a chair may be enough to cause a tear if the menisci have weakened with age.
A popping feeling may be felt when a meniscus is torn. Most people can still walk on the injured knee and many athletes keep playing with a meniscus tear. The most common symptoms of meniscus tears are:
- Stiffness and swelling
- Locking or catching of the knee
- “Giving way” sensation of the knee
- Inability to move the knee the full range of motion
Without treatment, a piece of meniscus may come loose and drift into the knee joint, which can cause the knee to slip, pop or lock.
Treatment depends on the type of tear, its size, its location, as well as the age, activity level and any related injuries of the patient. A longitudinal tear is a tear on the outside one-third of the meniscus and may heal on its own due to rich blood supply, or can often be repaired with surgery. Contrastingly, the inner two-thirds of the meniscus lack a blood supply and cannot heal. These complex tears are often in thin, worn cartilage and are often removed surgically since they cannot grow back together.
If the tear is small and does not cause symptoms, surgery may not be necessary as long as the knee is stable. Nonsurgical options include:
- Gentle compression
- Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) such as ibuprofen or naproxen
- Physical therapy
If additional injuries or symptoms persist with nonsurgical treatment, surgery may be recommended. Meniscus tear surgery is done arthroscopically using small incisions. This technique is typically done as an outpatient surgery. A meniscectomy involves removing a torn portion of the meniscus, whereas a meniscus repair surgery involves stitching the tear back together. The type of tear will dictate whether a repair or partial meniscectomy is performed.
Meniscus tears are extremely common knee injuries. With proper diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation, patients often return to their pre-injury abilities.
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