If you’re experiencing knee pain, you may have a meniscal tear. Our orthopedic experts explain what causes this injury and what you can expect during your recovery.

The meniscus is a key cartilaginous structure in the knee joint. Pain and swelling in the medial, or inside, part of the knee can unfortunately be a sign of tearing, but your treatment options will look different depending on the type of tear, the cause, and the severity. Our guide explains meniscal injuries, and what you can expect when you visit your doctor.

WHAT IS THE MENISCUS?

The meniscus is the C-shaped, rubbery cartilage in the knee that acts as a shock absorber and stabilizer for the joint, distributing the body’s weight and providing a cushion between the femur and tibia bones. The medial meniscus is located on the inner knee, while the lateral meniscus is on the outside. Medial tears are more common, but the symptoms are the same for both injuries.

Meniscal injuries can be classified according to the “zone” of the meniscus that is affected. This allows the physician to determine the amount of blood flow available to aid in the healing process. The red zone is the outer third, which has blood vessels and is more easily repaired by the body. The red-white zone has fewer blood vessels and is less quick to heal. The inner third, the white zone, has poor blood flow and is therefore more difficult to repair.

Meniscal tears also come in a variety of shapes, which may influence the course of treatment. Common shapes include bucket-handle, flap, and radial tears, or complex combinations of the three. A tears is considered “complete” if a piece of tissue has become separated from the meniscus. Degenerative tears, which are generally caused by arthritis, are more typical of older patients. Traumatic tears are common among athletes, who often twist and turn the meniscus.

SYMPTOMS AND CAUSES OF MENISCAL TEARS

The first sign of a meniscal tear may be a “pop” in the joint, and you may continue to feel a popping or clicking sensation with movement. Although you may be able to walk on the knee at first, subsequent pain and swelling can worsen in the days that follow, especially if you continue to use the leg. For a severe tear, the knee may click, lose its full range of motion, or even give way. If a part of the meniscus comes loose, the knee can slip or even lock.

Athletes and young people are especially prone to this injury due to sports trauma or hyper-flexing the joint. A forced twist, especially when the foot is planted, may cause the meniscus to tear. Older people may experience meniscal pain due to arthritis or ordinary degenerative wear to the cartilage. In these cases the pain occurs due to gradual tearing over time, and may present with no trauma to the knee.

KNEE PAIN TREATMENT AND RECOVERY

The first course of action is to follow the rules of “RICE”: rest the knee, ice the area in 20-minute sessions, compress the area, and elevate the leg to reduce swelling. In some cases, the knee may heal with this conservative treatment, but we recommend consulting an orthopedic specialist to examine the joint and monitor your recovery. Your doctor may perform a McMurray test, which includes bending, straightening, and rotating the knee in order to determine if an MRI is necessary. Orthopedic specialists usually will not recommend surgery for older patients, but physical therapy may help you find relief within five weeks.

For younger patients, arthroscopic surgery may actually be a preferred option, as this will help preserve the cartilage and prevent early onset arthritis in the joint. This type of surgery requires only two pinhole incisions. In most cases, when the tear is in the white zone, the fragment is trimmed and the remainder smoothed. Tears in the red zone are usually repaired to retain the full benefits of a complete meniscus. Surgery is often completed in 30 minutes, followed by several days of walking with the assistance of a crutch, or possibly a brace. After a few days you can expect to return to most normal activities. Full recovery, and a return to strenuous activity, can be expected after a few weeks of physical therapy.