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Torn Meniscus in Knee (Meniscal Tear)

What is a torn meniscus?

The meniscus is a piece of cartilage in the middle of the knee. Cartilage is tissue that lines and cushions the surfaces of joints. You have a meniscus on the inner side of your knee and on the outer side of the knee. Each meniscus acts a cushion between the shinbone and the thighbone. They act as shock absorbers during weight-bearing activities, like walking, running, or jumping. If a meniscus tears, it can cause knee pain and limit movement of your knee.

What is the cause?

A meniscus can tear if the knee is forcefully twisted, like from a sudden stop and turn. Sometimes it happens from less forceful movement, like kneeling or squatting.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • Pain in your knee joint
  • Swelling
  • Trouble bending or straightening your leg
  • A snapping or popping sound at the time of the injury

If you have had the tear for a while, it may give you pain on and off during activities, with or without swelling. Sometimes your knee may get stuck in one place. You may have stiffness in the knee.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and how the injury happened. Your provider will examine your knee. Tests may include:

  • X-rays of the shoulder
  • MRI, which uses a strong magnetic field and radio waves to show detailed pictures of the knee

How is it treated?

Treatment depends on how bad the tear is.

  • You will need to change or stop doing the activities that cause pain until your knee has healed. For example, you may need to swim instead of run.
  • Your healthcare provider may recommend stretching and strengthening exercises to help you heal.
  • Your provider may wrap an elastic bandage around your knee to keep the swelling from getting worse. You may need to keep your knee in a knee immobilizer or brace and use crutches to protect your knee while you heal.
  • Your provider may give you a shot of a steroid medicine. This will not fix the torn meniscus but may relieve your symptoms temporarily.
  • Sometimes arthroscopic surgery is needed to repair or remove large, torn pieces of cartilage. This surgery is done with a small scope inserted into your joint. Your provider uses the scope to look directly at your joint. Your provider can put tools through the scope to do the surgery. Because the meniscus is an important shock absorber, your provider will leave as much of the healthy part of the meniscus in your knee as possible.

If you have a small tear that has not been repaired or removed, you may still be able to do your usual activities. However, your knee may sometimes swell, lock, be stiff, or hurt during activities.

How can I take care of myself?

To keep swelling down and help relieve pain for the first few days after the injury:

  • Put an ice pack, gel pack, or package of frozen vegetables wrapped in a cloth on your knee every 3 to 4 hours for up to 20 minutes at a time.
  • Keep your knee up on a pillow when you sit or lie down.
  • Take nonprescription pain medicine, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or naproxen. Read the label and take as directed. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medicines (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen or naproxen, may cause stomach bleeding and other problems. These risks increase with age. Unless recommended by your healthcare provider, do not take an NSAID for more than 10 days.

Follow your healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:

  • How and when you will hear your test results
  • How long it will take to recover
  • What activities you should avoid and when you can return to your normal activities
  • How to take care of yourself at home
  • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if you have them

Make sure you know when you should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent a meniscal tear?

Warm-up exercises and stretching before activities can help prevent injuries. For example, stretch your leg muscles and do exercises that build strong thigh and calf muscles.

Follow safety rules and use any protective equipment recommended for your work or sport. For example, if you ski, make sure your ski bindings are set correctly by a trained professional so that your skis will release if you fall.

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Published by RelayHealth.
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