For athletes or sports fans, the term “torn meniscus” is a fairly common one – probably because, for those playing contact sports, knee injuries are some of the more frequent injuries in general. However, even for those who aren’t involved in contact sports, a torn meniscus is still possible.
What is a Meniscus?
The meniscus is one of the main cartilage structures in the knee joint. Cushioning the space between the tibia and the femur (the shinbone and thighbone, respectively), this C-shaped pad effectively functions as a shock absorber for our femur and tibia.
Each knee has two menisci: one on the inside of the knee and one on the outside. Acting as shock absorbers for activities that involve running and jumping, the menisci are there to create a smooth surface for the femur and tibia to glide on each other while the knee bends and to cushion the forces when weight is applied to the knee. This will ensure the bones in our knees aren’t grinding against one another.
Causes of a Torn Meniscus
Unfortunately well-known as a common injury in athletes, there are two general causes or types of a torn meniscus: a traumatic tear or a degenerative (or atraumatic) tear.
A traumatic tear occurs when the athlete plants the foot, then twists their upper leg in the opposite direction. Sometimes this may happen as the result of a cut or juke – any sort of movement that involves the knee twisting. Additionally, a traumatic tear of the meniscus can occur when performing a repetitive squatting motion, such as weighted squats.
A degenerative tear is often caused by a breakdown of the cartilage in the meniscus itself over time, making it prone to serious injury. These sorts of meniscus tears most frequently affect older adults, some of which have biologically disadvantageous infrastructures which make the knee more likely to become damaged.
A degenerative tear has a very different tear pattern than that of a traumatic one. Because of this, treatment may be much different between the two depending upon diagnosis.
Torn Meniscus Signs and Symptoms
One of the most common reports from patients experiencing a torn meniscus is the feeling of a “pop” when the meniscus is torn. And though walking is still possible (and even continuing to play, in some cases), the knee eventually becomes swollen, stiff and gradually more painful in the days following an injury like this.
Here are some of the most common symptoms of a torn meniscus:
· Pain above the knee joint, especially when trying to bend it
· Swelling and/or stiffness in the affected area
· The feeling that your knee is giving out or buckling
· Shorter range of movement in the knee
Diagnosing a Torn Meniscus
Before being able to accurately diagnose a torn meniscus, your doctor will take you through a few standard tests to isolate the source of the issue. In most cases, they will first perform a physical examination.
During your physical examination, they will test the range of motion in your knee to look for signs of tenderness, particularly against the joint line. This physical exam normally involves bending the knee to check for stiffness, as well as straightening it out and rotating it.
Once your doctor determines where the injury may lie, they will likely recommend some form of imaging test to further confirm the severity of the injury, as well as the exact location. It’s at this time that they may also refer you to an orthopedic knee specialist.
Though a torn meniscus is more likely to be found on a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan because it’s a soft tissue, your specialist might also order an x-ray as well to see if there are other outstanding causes for the knee pain you’re experiencing. Once you are diagnosed with a torn meniscus, your orthopedic specialist will walk you through potential treatment options.
Treatment for a Torn Meniscus
Treatment options may vary, depending upon the type of torn meniscus. The treatment your doctor chooses usually depends upon the following variables:
· The severity of the tear
· The exact placement of the tear
· Your previous medical history/current health
· The length of time required to heal
· Your level of daily activity
· Your preference
While there are both non-surgical and surgical treatment options for a torn meniscus, surgery is nearly always required if you’re looking to get back into sports or highly intense physical activity at any point in the future.
As with nearly all orthopedic injuries, the RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation) method is advised for immediate treatment:
· Rest: Stop whatever physical activity you were doing when you sustained the injury and avoid putting stress on the injured area.
· Ice: Use ice on the affected area for 1-hour periods (20 minutes on, 20 minutes off, 20 minutes on) throughout the day.
· Compression: Wearing compressive material around the affected area can help you avoid additional swelling.
· Elevation: Keep the affected area higher than your heart to increase blood flow and reduce swelling.
Your doctor may also prescribe steroid injections to assist with pain and/or swelling.
In terms of surgical treatment options, a knee arthroscopy is the most efficient and common method of use for orthopedic specialists across the country:
As one of the most common knee-related surgical procedures in orthopedic medicine, a knee arthroscopy involves two to three small incisions in the knee. The surgeon inserts and stabilizes a miniature camera through one of the incisions. After that, they then insert another instrument through one of the other small portals to repair the torn meniscus.
Another approach that may be used, depending on the type of tear, involves stitching the torn pieces of menisci together. In this type of surgery, the recovery time may take longer due to the slow-natured healing process of cartilage.
Sometimes when the tear is minor, the damaged tissue can be trimmed away or smoothed down through a “shaving” process that typically allows for a quicker recovery than other forms of surgery – usually about three to six weeks.
Regardless of the surgery your doctor recommends, recovery time will vary from patient to patient. That’s because, aside from the success of the surgery itself, physical rehabilitation is required to ensure an improved range of motion is supplied before the patient can get back to their normal level of physical activity. In most cases, this rehab can actually be done at home.
Between surgery and rehab, the full recovery time for a torn meniscus can take anywhere from three to six months.
Do You Think You May Have a Torn Meniscus?
If so, consider visiting a knee specialist at Rothman Orthopaedics. At Rothman, our team of doctors and orthopedic specialists are some of the best in the country at treating those dealing with sports medicine-related injuries. To make an appointment, call us at 1-800-321-9999 or visit us online.