What Is a Meniscus Tear and Its Treatment?

Should You Consider Surgery for a Meniscus Tear?

Close-up of a woman holding her injured leg
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The meniscus is a small, "c" shaped piece of cartilage that acts as a cushion in the knee joint. You have two per knee. They sit between the thigh bone (femur) and the tibia (shin bone), one on the outside (lateral meniscus) and one on the inside of the knee (medial meniscus).

What Is a Meniscus Tear?

A meniscus tear occurs when these pieces of cartilage tear and are injured, usually during movements that forcefully rotate the knee while bearing weight.

A partial or total tear of a meniscus sometimes occurs if an athlete quickly twists or rotates the upper leg while the foot is firmly planted. This often occurs in field sports such as soccer and football.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

An injured or torn meniscus causes mild to severe pain (particularly when the knee is straightened) depending upon the extent of the tear. Severe pain is common when a torn meniscus fragment catches between the femur and tibia. Swelling is common at the time of injury, but may not develop until hours later as the joint tissues inflame. Frequently, an injury to the meniscus causes an audible click or pop, or the knee may lock, or feel weak. If the meniscus injury is small, these symptoms may resolve over time without treatment, but some meniscus injuries may benefit from a surgical repair.

To diagnose a meniscus tear or other meniscus injury, a physician takes a complete history and performs a physical exam.

It's often possible to determine the extent of the injury by manipulating the knee in various ways. Pain, pops, or clicks during this test may suggest a meniscus tear. An MRI may also be done to see the extent of the tear.

Treating a Meniscus Tear with Physical Therapy

Treatment varies depending upon the extent and location of the meniscus tear.

If the tear is minor and the pain and other symptoms resolve quickly, muscle strengthening exercises may be all that's needed to recover fully. In this case, a patient is usually referred to physical therapy.

When Surgical Repair Is Recommended

A large meniscus tear that causes symptoms or mechanical problems with the function of the knee joint may require arthroscopic surgery for repair. In this procedure, a small camera is inserted into the joint through a small incision, while surgical instruments are inserted into the joint through a second, small incision. With the camera, the surgeon can see the entire joint and remove and repair the torn pieces of the meniscus. The goal is to save as much of the original, normal meniscus cartilage as possible.

During meniscus repair surgery the torn section of the meniscus is either removed (a partial meniscectomy) or the torn edges are joined back together with suture or tacks.

Deciding About Meniscus Surgery

The decision to have meniscus repair surgery is not a simple decision. However, the location of the meniscus tear may affect the surgical outcome. The meniscus gets it's blood supply from the outer edge. Meniscus repairs near this blood supply tend to heal quite well, but research shows that meniscus repairs near the center do not heal due to a limited blood supply.

 Meniscus tears that occur in the center of the cartilage are usually removed.

Recovery is dependent upon the extent of the surgery. Your surgeon and your physical therapist will provide a full rehab schedule.

More Information About Meniscus Tears

Meniscus Repair -Surgical Repair of Torn Cartilage
Rehab For Meniscus Repair
Other Knee Injuries


Meniscus Tears, OrthoInfo, American Academyof Orthopaedic Surgeons, March, 2014.

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