What is a meniscus tear or strain?

A meniscus tear or strain occurs when the meniscus (two pieces of cartilage that act as a cushion between the thigh bone and shin bone) is injured. Menisci are designed to help keep the knee steady and balance weight across the knee; therefore, when the meniscus is torn, it can prevent the knee from functioning properly.

Meniscus tears are a common injury to the knee. Meniscus tears are categorized as mild, moderate or severe.

Causes of a meniscus tear or strain

Meniscus tears or strains are common injuries to the knee and can be caused by direct contact in sporting activities or from pressure in a sudden rotation.

  • High-impact sports such as football, basketball, tennis or soccer
  • Deep squatting or stepping
  • A sudden pivot or turn

Risk factors for a meniscus tear or strain

  • Age — the meniscus gets worn as you age, so people over the age of 30 are at a higher risk for suffering from a meniscus tear.
  • Athletes — athletes who play sports such as football, basketball, soccer and tennis are at a higher risk for suffering from a meniscus tear because of the sudden stops and turns involved in playing the game.
  • Osteoarthritis — people who suffer from osteoarthritis are at a higher risk for suffering from a meniscus tear or strain.

Symptoms of a meniscus tear or strain

Symptoms of mild meniscus tears or strains:

  • Pain
  • Swelling

Typically, mild meniscus tears heal within two to three weeks.

Symptoms of moderate meniscus tears or strains:

  • Pain at the side or center of the knee
  • Stiffness
  • Inability to move the knee freely

If left untreated, moderate meniscus tears can cause problems for many years.

Symptoms of severe meniscus tears:

  • Popping, locking or catching
  • Inability to straighten the knee
  • Knee that gives way
  • Stiffness and swelling right after the incident

Diagnosis of a meniscus tear or strain

If you experience symptoms of a meniscus tear or strain for more than a couple days, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor. Meniscus tears are diagnosed in a physical exam with your primary care or orthopedic physician. During the exam, your doctor may evaluate the following:

  • Medical history — your physician will take a full medical history.
  • Physical exam — your doctor will examine your knee and test the range of motion.
  • Diagnostic testing — the physician may also perform a McMurray test to evaluate if there is a “pop” when bending, straightening or when rotating the knee.

Treatments for a meniscus tear or strain

Treatments for a meniscus tear or strain depend on the severity of the tear or strain, the location of the tear and your age and activity level. In many cases, patients can recover with resting, icing, compressing and elevating the injured area.

You may also need physical therapy and rehabilitation to help you regain as much strength and flexibility in the knee as possible.

Work with your physical therapist to determine the best program that will allow you to reach your rehab goals at your pace.

If your symptoms do not resolve with nonsurgical treatment options, surgery may be necessary. Your orthopedic surgeon will determine what type of surgery is needed based on the size of the tear, the location of the tear, your age and activity level as well your surgeon’s experience.

  • Arthroscopic surgery — a small hole is created to allow for a camera to provide a clear view of the inside of the knee, the surgeon will insert surgical instruments into the hole and will repair the tear.
  • Partial meniscectomy — removal of unstable meniscal fragments and smoothing of the remaining meniscus edges to ensure there are no frayed ends.
  • Total meniscetomy — the entire meniscus is removed surgically

Recovery from a meniscus tear or strain

It is important to follow your doctor’s orders closely to return to your previous activity level as soon as possible. Cartilage does not have a significant amount of blood to speed healing, but the outer portions of the meniscus have more blood vessels and are expected to heal.

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