Meniscus tears: A closer look at a common knee injury

Often, people dismiss knee pain as bad knees, a sprain or arthritis, but there’s another common knee injury that may be to blame: a meniscus tear.

Characterized by pain, swelling, stiffness, difficulty extending your knee and the sensation that your knee is giving way when you put pressure on it, a meniscus tear may limit your ability to function and participate in certain activities. While not all meniscus tears require surgery, they should be assessed and diagnosed by a knee subspecialist who will determine a course of treatment. Left untreated, a piece of meniscus may come loose and drift into the joint, causing your knee to slip, pop or lock.

  • What exactly is the meniscus? The knee meniscus is two wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage that serve as shock absorbers between your thighbone and shinbone. Tough and rubbery, this cartilage helps cushion the joint and keep it stable.
  • How can you tear your meniscus? This injury can result from a single traumatic event, such as an abrupt twist of the knee, or from years of wear and tear. The most common orthopedic injury, it can happen to just about anyone. Many athletes experience this kind of injury, including NBA players Derrick Rose and Brandon Roy, soccer player Luis Suarez, and NFL players Adrian Peterson and Jalen Ramsey. Older people are more likely to suffer from degenerative meniscus tears due to cartilage that is weakened and wears thin over time.
  • How is this injury diagnosed? A physical exam that will test joint tenderness, X-rays and an MRI will determine if the pain is the result of a meniscus tear or another knee injury, such as a torn ACL, sprain or arthritis.
  • How is it treated? Treatment will depend upon the tear’s type, size and location. Tears are initially treated through RICE protocol: rest, ice, compression and elevation. If the tear is in the part of the meniscus that has a rich blood supply (the red zone), it may then heal on its own or require surgery. A tear in the part that lacks blood supply (the white zone) cannot heal on its own and may be surgically trimmed. Torn fragments are often removed via minimally invasive arthroscopic surgery.
  • What is recovery like? With proper diagnosis, treatment and rehabilitation, most patients usually resume normal activities within several weeks.

Could a torn meniscus be to blame for your knee pain? Contact the board-certified, fellowship-trained knee specialists at The Orlin & Cohen Orthopedic Group to find out.