Torn Meniscus: Everything You Need to Know

18 May, 2020
A torn meniscus can be the result of a trauma or gradual degeneration. In this article, we'll look at the causes and consequences.
 

The menisci are fibrous cartilage located in the knee. They’re situated between the femur and the tibia and, if torn, they can leave a patient with severe mobility problems for several weeks. In this article, we’ll go into more detail about what a torn meniscus means and what treatment options there are.

What causes a torn meniscus?

There are two menisci, one in each knee. One is internal and has a C-shape, and the other is external and has an O-shape. Their job is to make sure that the femur and tibia fit together properly and distribute the forces on the knee, stabilize it, and act as a shock absorber between the bones.

As a result, the most common cause of a torn meniscus is when the forces exerted on it go beyond what it’s capable of supporting. This is a common injury in soccer players or people who ski because they make sudden rotational movements whilst the leg is supporting the body.

This combination of rotation and flexion or extension will determine which menisci are most affected.

However, a torn meniscus may also occur as a result of gradual degeneration. A person in middle or old age may suffer from a torn meniscus as the result of built-up wear over the years.

If the knee repeatedly makes the same motions over several decades, particularly if those movements are incorrect or the knee has to bear a lot of weight, then a meniscus tear is possible.

What are the symptoms of a torn meniscus?

It may seem obvious, but the first symptom will be a pain. This pain might be localized, if just the meniscus is ruptured, or generalized around the joint if other parts of the knee after also affected. This will lead to local inflammation and motion will be limited, and you probably won’t be able to flex or extend your knee at all.

 
A male runner clutching his knee.

If you have these three symptoms, it’s likely to be a meniscus tear. However, it’s possible that you’re suffering from a different injury with similar symptoms. Always visit a specialist to get an accurate diagnosis.

What therapeutic options are there?

Depending on the cause of the injury and how serious it is, you have two options. Firstly, there’s the more conservative option. This involves resting the knee and applying ice and a compression bandage. You should keep your leg raised to reduce the inflammation.

Then, you can continue with physiotherapy to gradually strengthen the leg muscles and regain your stability and range of movement. This treatment is a good option for minor injuries or where you don’t need to urgently recover for competitive sport.

However, this treatment won’t fix the tear. It simply eliminates the symptoms by strengthening the other structures around the knee.

The second option is surgery followed by rehabilitation and physiotherapy. There are two surgical options that are commonly used:

  • Partial meniscectomy, which involves removing the damaged tissue.
 

There are also two others that are less common. One is a total meniscectomy, which is becoming less and less common because of the long-term consequences. There are also meniscal grafts, which consist of taking donated meniscal tissue and implanting it.

A female athlete receiving treatment.

As well as being more complex, this latter option can result in rejection of the donor tissue. Post-operative physiotherapy will be just the same as with the more conservative treatment, except that with this option, the patient can expect a complete recovery of the damaged tissue.

Rehabilitation after a meniscus tear

If you opt for the more conservative treatment for a minor injury, recovery will be different for each patient. It’ll be a gradual process of walking and supporting your body weight without pain. If you undergo surgery, a partial meniscectomy will require about six weeks before you can return to normal life. If you receive surgery for a meniscus suture repair, you’ll need to keep weight off the leg for three weeks, followed by a few months of rehabilitation therapy.

 
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  • Álvarez A, Ricardo S, García Y. Lesiones degenerativas del menisco. Rev. Cubana Ortop Traumatol vol.32 no.1 Ciudad de la Habana ene.-jun. 2018.
  • Álvarez LA, García LY. Técnicas quirúrgicas para las lesiones de menisco. Revista Cubana de Ortopedia y Traumatología 2015; 29 (2).