One of the most common types of knee injuries, a meniscus tear is a painful condition that can prevent the knee from functioning.
The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage in the knee that acts as a cushioning buffer for protecting the joint. Tears in this shock-absorbing cartilage can cause the knee joint to become unstable, leading to the joint catching or locking up.
Athletes are at particular risk for meniscus tears, but tears often happen during other activities that involve pivoting or over-flexing of the knee joint as well. Because the cartilage weakens with age, most tears in the meniscus are seen in people over age 30.
Causes of Meniscus Tears in the Knee
Trauma to the knee causes most meniscus tears. Typically, this trauma involves a sudden, forceful twist or rotation of the knee while the foot is planted. Referred to as acute tears, these injuries often happen in sports that require quick stops and turns, such as football, tennis and basketball.
Degenerative tears in the meniscus can occur during normal, everyday activities like squatting or lifting a heavy box. Older people are more likely to have these meniscus tears, as they usually occur because the cartilage has become worn with age and more prone to tearing.
Osteoarthritis, a chronic joint condition, increases a person’s likelihood of developing a meniscus tear.
Meniscus Tears in the Knee Diagnosis
Diagnosis begins with a medical history and physical examination to determine the knee’s range of motion, and a check for pain and tenderness along the joint line. The doctor may perform a McMurry test, which involves putting tension on the meniscus by bending, straightening and rotating the knee. If the knee has a meniscus tear, a clicking sound will be heard during this test.
X-rays of the affected knee will usually be performed to rule out other causes of knee pain. An MRI is often recommended, as it can provide a clear picture of the extent of a tear.
Treatments for Meniscus Tears in the Knee
Rest, ice, compression and elevation, also known as the RICE technique, is often used to treat minor meniscus tears. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen, can work to reduce pain and swelling. Wearing a knee brace or using arch supports can help to stabilize and support the knee.
Physical therapy exercises are often recommended, as these can help strengthen the muscles around the knee. With severe meniscus tears, arthroscopic surgery may be advised. This surgery may either be a meniscectomy, in which the damaged tissue is trimmed away, or a meniscus repair, in which the torn edges are sutured together.