One of the most commonly injured areas in our knees is called the meniscus. The meniscus is a rubbery, C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions your knee. Each of your knees has 2 menisci (plural of meniscus); one on the inner (medial) part of the knee, and the other on the outer (lateral) part. Together they act to absorb shock and stabilize the knee joint.
A meniscal tear typically is caused by twisting or turning quickly on a bent knee, often with the foot planted on the ground. Although meniscal tears are common in those who play contact sports, anyone at any age can tear a meniscus.
Meniscus tears come in different shapes and sizes and can occur at different locations in the knee. Tears are usually described by where they are located and their appearance (for example, “bucket handle” tear, longitudinal, parrot beak, and transverse). While physical examination may predict whether it is the medial or lateral meniscus that is damaged, a diagnostic procedure, like an MRI can locate the specific part of the cartilage that is torn and how it appears.
Because there is different blood supply to each part of the meniscus, knowing where the tear is located may help decide how easily an injury might heal (with or without surgery). The better the blood supply, the better the potential for recovery.
If you are older and your meniscus is worn, you may not know what you did to cause the tear. You may only remember feeling pain after you got up from a squatting position, for example. Pain and slight swelling are often the only symptoms.
Your health care provider may diagnose a torn meniscus, but meniscal injuries can very often be managed without surgery. A short course of treatment provided by a physical therapist can help determine whether your knee will recover without surgery. The physical therapist plays an important role by controlling pain and swelling and by restoring full strength and mobility to your knee.
Patients with more serious meniscal tears, or those that don’t respond to a course of physical therapy, may need surgery. Surgically removing the torn cartilage (a procedure called a menisectomy) usually is a simple procedure that requires a brief course of physical therapy treatment after surgery. Most people are able to return to their previous level of activity, including sports, in fewer than 2 months.
Sometimes the surgeon will decide that the torn meniscus can be repaired, instead of removed. Research studies show that if a meniscal repair is possible, the long-term outcome is better than removal because the repair can reduce the risk of arthritis later in life.
Rehabilitation following a meniscal repair is slower and more extensive than with removal because the repaired tissue must be protected while it is healing. The type of surgical technique performed, the extent of your injury, and the preferences of the surgeon often determine how quickly you will be able to put weight on the leg, stop using crutches, and return to your previous activities.