Meniscus Tears 101: Causes, Effects, and Treatments
What is a meniscus tear?
Oh no– you think you’ve got a meniscus tear? You’re in the right place to learn about its causes, effects, identifiers, and cures. Let’s dive right in.
Picture a C-shaped piece of cartilage in your knee that sits right under the patella and acts like a shock absorber between your thighbone and shinbone– that’s your meniscus. A meniscus tear is when that little cushiony cartilage in your knee, which acts as a shock absorber between your thigh bone and shinbone, gets torn.
When intact and healthy, your meniscus keeps your knee stable, but when it’s not, could cause loads of pain when you place even the tiniest bit of pressure on it.
Meniscus tears come in a few forms, two common ones being a radial tear, which is common in the acute meniscus in athletes, and a degenerative tear, which is common in older folks with aging joints. Tears can happen unexpectedly, like when you’re playing sports and twist your knee, or they can sneak up on you over time, like when osteoarthritis is the culprit. Some hear a pop when they tear their meniscus, while others just feel a dull pain, and while people can still walk on that injured leg for a few days, it’ll get worse and worse after about 2-3 days in, making the knee stiff and swollen.
Whatever the cause might be, an intense tear can make it near impossible to put weight on your leg!
You might have been looking to treat your meniscus tear by yourself, by doing things like resting or icing your knee, compressing the area, or elevating the leg, but it can’t always heal naturally, especially if it’s on the outer one-third of the meniscus.
Related: Treating Chronic Pain Can Be Done Compassionately
How common are meniscus tears?
Meniscus tears sure are quite common! In fact, they’re the most frequent type of knee injury, affecting around 1 million people in the United States each year. These pesky tears often happen to people between the ages of 20 and 40, but are common in athletes putting an immense amount of pressure on their bodies and patients with degenerating menisci, usually over the age of 65.
What are the causes of meniscus tears?
There are quite a few reasons why someone might end up with a tear in their knee’s meniscus. The most typical cause is a sudden twisting or pivoting movement, like when you quickly change directions while playing sports or while moving. This kind of injury is often an acute meniscus tear, as it’s not as intense as a full tear but still needs to follow protocols to be recovered.
Some other causes of more intense meniscus tears include:
- Degenerative changes in the knee joint, such as those that come with osteoarthritis
- A direct hit to the knee
- Taking a tumble
- Having repeated stress on the knee joint from activities like running or jumping
Even if you’ve been able to walk on the knee for a bit, you might still be dealing with a meniscus tear, especially if the pain has been getting worse. And based on the symptoms alone, you can probably notice how intense or acute the tear is.
What are the symptoms of a torn meniscus?
Now, the symptoms of a meniscus tear can be different for everyone, depending on how severe the tear is. You might notice symptoms like:
- Knee pain
- Knee stiffness
- Knee swelling
- Muscle cramping around the knee
- Trouble bending or straightening the knee
- Feeling like your knee is locking or catching*
- Your knee is giving out on you*
*This is when the meniscus tear becomes more severe.
If you’re experiencing any of these, make sure to visit a doctor– ideally an orthopedic doctor or multi-specialty pain clinic– so they can diagnose you and help you come up with a treatment plan all under one roof. (We work with patients where we can diagnose the injury, call over to another department, and get any additional protocols, like surgery, scheduled all in one fell swoop.)
The symptoms and effects of a torn meniscus can vary depending on the severity of the tear, the location of the tear, and a patient’s age and activity level– it’s always vital for you to get it checked out yourself so you can identify the prominent cause of your knee pain.
Can a torn meniscus heal on its own?
It largely depends on the severity of the tear. If the tear is small and on the outer part of the meniscus, it may be able to heal on its own with the RICE method of rest, ice, compression, and elevation. However, if the tear is large or on the inner part of the meniscus, or if you feel that it’s preventing your ability to straighten your knee, it might require physical therapy or even surgery.
There are two main types of surgery for a torn meniscus if you end up needing that route:
Arthroscopy: This is the most common meniscus surgery, it is a minimally invasive procedure that uses a small camera and surgical instruments to repair the tear often in as little as 30 minutes.
Open surgery: This is a more invasive procedure that requires a larger incision to repair the tear for more invasive meniscus tears if you need a full meniscus transplant. Here at APC, we’ll do either a unicompartmental knee replacement or a total knee replacement. If your osteoarthritis advances from moderate to severe, and a knee scope is no longer enough to repair or reduce your main, it might be time to talk to your surgeon about either a uni- or total knee replacement. (Find an APC doctor near you.)
The best type of surgery for you will depend on the severity of your tear, your age, and your activity level, so be sure to connect with a local pain management specialist or doctor that will give you the proper protocol so you can take approaches in accordance to your lifestyle and heal as quickly as possible.
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Tips to Prevent Meniscus Tears
Here are some simple tips to follow to help you prevent meniscus tears:
- Don’t forget to warm up before exercising – it’s super important!
- Make sure you’re wearing the right footwear for the activity you’re doing.
- Work on strengthening those knee-surrounding muscles in your legs for natural protection.
- Steer clear of activities that put too much stress on your knees, particularly if you’ve had knee issues in the past.
- If you’re carrying extra weight, try losing a few pounds to ease the pressure on your knees.
- Keep an eye on managing osteoarthritis if it’s a concern for you.
And remember, if you ever experience pain or swelling in your knee, don’t hesitate to see a doctor for a proper diagnosis and treatment plan.