What is a Meniscus Tear?

Mary McMahon

A meniscus tear is an injury which affects the meniscus, a critical pad of cartilage in the knee joint. This type of injury is one of the most common forms of knee injury, especially in elderly people and athletes. Treatment for a meniscus tear depends on the severity of the tear, the activity level of the patient, and the general health of the patient. In some cases, a full recovery is possible, while in other instances, patients may experience recurrent knee pain.

A diagram of the knee, showing the lateral and medial menisci.
A diagram of the knee, showing the lateral and medial menisci.

Before delving into the specifics of a meniscus tear, it may help to visualize knee anatomy. The knee is a very important joint in the body, consisting of the area where the femur (thigh bone), tibia (shin bone), and patella (kneecap) meet. The meniscus is a layer of cartilage inside the knee which basically acts like a pad, distributing the body's weight across the tibia and preventing the shin bone, thigh bone, and kneecap from grating against each other.

The knee is a very important joint in the body.
The knee is a very important joint in the body.

If the meniscus becomes torn, it is no longer able to function as it should. Meniscus tears can happen as a result of physical trauma, or as a complication of age-related degeneration. In older people, for example, the meniscus is more worn, so a relatively benign motion may result in a meniscus tear, while younger people generally need to really abuse their knees before the meniscus will tear.

It's hard to miss this injury. The knee usually swells up rapidly, and it becomes quite painful and hot to the touch. Commonly, popping noises emanate from the knee, and the range of motion may be limited. In some cases, standing on the affected leg is extremely painful.

A doctor usually diagnoses a meniscus tear after discussing the patient's history and performing a physical examination, although sometimes a diagnostic test such as an MRI may be ordered. If the meniscus tear is relatively mild, the patient will typically be told to go home, keep weight off the leg, and ice it, allowing the swelling to decline. Taking it easy for a few weeks or months may resolve the tear, allowing the patient to resume his or her prior activity level.

More severe tears require surgery to repair the torn meniscus, along with a lengthy recovery period. Even after surgery, an estimated 20% of cases may fail, requiring a repeat of the surgical procedure. Physical therapy is also usually necessary, along with enforced rest to reduce strain on the meniscus. Failure to follow recommendations from a doctor can result in more severe damage, which could put an end to an athletic career or the ability to dance, walk, and run in comfort.

A person wearing a meniscus brace.
A person wearing a meniscus brace.

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