What is a meniscus tear?

Between the bones of the knees are two crescent-shaped discs of connective tissue, called menisci, which also act as shock absorbers to cushion the lower part of the leg from the weight of the rest of the body. A torn meniscus can occur during a rotating movement while bearing weight, such as when twisting the upper leg while the foot stays in one place during sports and other activities.

Meniscus tears can also happen from kneeling, squatting, lifting a heavy object or when your knee and its surrounding tissue show signs of aging.

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Torn meniscus symptoms

  • A popping sensation in your knee
  • Knee swelling
  • Knee stiffness or feeling like it is locked in position
  • Knee pain, especially when rotating your knee
  • Trouble fully straightening your knee
  • Knee buckling

Torn meniscus diagnosis

A meniscus tear can be diagnosed during a physical exam from a sports medicine expert who may check your knee’s range of motion as well as your walking gait. A magnetic resonance imaging test may be prescribed to diagnose if a meniscus tear is present.

For some patients, arthroscopy is the means to diagnose and treat a torn meniscus. An orthopedic sports medicine surgeon may use an arthroscope to examine the inside of your knee through a small incision. The arthroscope’s light and camera can confirm a meniscus tear and enable the surgeon to insert instrumentation to repair it.

Torn meniscus treatment

An untreated torn meniscus can result in instability of the knee, persistent pain and increased your risk of osteoarthritis. Treatment begins conservatively; however, you may need surgery for your meniscus tear if your knee is swollen or it is difficult to walk.

Torn meniscus treatment plans for patients will be determined by their care team based on age, medical history, types and stages of meniscus tears and personal preferences. Treatment for a meniscus tear may include medication for pain relief, exercise, icing or surgery.

If surgery for a torn meniscus is indicated, an orthopedic surgeon may perform one of these procedures depending on the severity and placement of the tear:

Arthroscopic repair

An orthopedic surgeon will make tiny incisions near your knee and use an arthroscope to trim or repair the meniscus tear.

Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy

An orthopedic specialist will remove a piece of the torn meniscus to restore your knee’s functionality.

Arthroscopic total meniscectomy

An orthopedic surgeon will remove the entire meniscus.

Meniscus transplant

This procedure is also called meniscus replacement and may be a choice for those 50 years of age or younger who do not have osteoarthritis. It involves using a meniscus from a cadaver.

Knee replacement

This may be the best long-term treatment if the torn meniscus resulted from advanced osteoarthritis.

Learn more about joint replacement

Torn meniscus recovery time

For at-home remedies, rest by avoiding activities that worsen your knee pain. Ice and over-the-counter pain relievers can be helpful; however, making an appointment with an orthopedic specialist for proper diagnosis, including the extent of the meniscus tear is recommended so your recovery plan may be best suited for your level of meniscus injury.

Surgical recovery from partial or total meniscectomy may be up to two months and will include the use of crutches to keep weight off your knee and a cast or brace to help stabilize your knee as it heals.

Recovery from a meniscus repair could take up to three months. If meniscus transplantation was done, it could take up to one year for your knee to heal before you can full return to sports activity.

Physical therapy and at home exercises are also important aspects of meniscus surgery recovery.