What is the Meniscus?
The knee is made up of four major bones: the femur (thigh bone), tibia and fibula (shin bones), and patella (knee cap). Inside the knee joint there are two C-shaped, wedge-like cushions of cartilage called the menisci. They are located in between the tibia and femur. The meniscus helps the knee joint carry weight, glide and rotate, acting as a shock absorber to prevent the femur and tibia from grinding against each other.
What is a Meniscal Tear and Who Can Experience It?
The meniscus can tear in a number of different ways:
- Longitudinal or bucket-handle tears occur if the femur and tibia trap the meniscus as the knee turns
- A combination of tears or radial tear occur when the meniscus splits in two different directions due to repetitive or overuse activities, such as running.
- Horizontal tears occur most often in older athletes, due to gradual degeneration of the cartilage within the meniscus
Athletes who practice contact sports are most at risk, because they can tear the meniscus by twisting the knee, pivoting, or decelerating. Meniscal tears often happen in combination with other injuries, such as a torn anterior cruciate ligament (ACL). However, as we age we can also injure the meniscus without any trauma, because cartilage becomes weakened and wears thin over time. This sets the stage for a degenerative tear.
What are the Symptoms of a Meniscal Tear?
If you have a torn meniscus, you might experience a popping or locking sensation, although you may still be able to walk on the injured knee and even perform your sport. However, when inflammation sets in, you will feel pain and often experience stiffness and swelling, tenderness in the joint and you may collect fluid or water on the knee.
If you do not seek treatment, a fragment of the meniscus can loosen and drift into the joint, causing it to slip, pop, or lock. Locked knees often get stuck so they cannot straighten our. If you think you have a torn meniscus, see your doctor immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
Conservative Treatment Options
Initial treatment consists of basic RICE formula:
Nonsteriodal anti-inflammatory medication is recommended for pain. If your knee is stable and does not experience locking, this may be all you need.
Surgical Treatment Options
If your Meniscal tear does not heal on its own and your knee becomes painful, stiff, swollen, or locked, you may require surgery. Your doctor may use an arthroscope to determine the type of tear, as well as to trim off damaged pieces of cartilage. Your age and other factors determine your speed of recovery. After surgery, you must complete a course of rehabilitation and exercise before gradually resuming your regular activity.
Prevent a Meniscal Tear by keeping your legs strong and flexible with a regular cross training fitness program and keeping excess weight off.