How to Know If You Have a Torn Meniscus
Here are answers to questions about this common knee injury.
If you have pain, swelling or stiffness in your knee, you may wonder if you have a torn meniscus. This type of injury is one of the most common knee injuries experienced and is especially common in athletes. How do you know if your meniscus is torn? And what should you do if you think it is? Read on for answers to common questions about this injury.
What is the meniscus and where is it located?
The meniscus is a c-shaped piece of cartilage in the knee that sits between the tibia (shin bone) and the femur (thigh bone). It acts like a cushion or shock absorber, protecting the lower leg from the shock created by our body weight when we take a step. Each knee has two menisci—one on the inside of the knee (the medial meniscus) and one on the outside of the knee (the lateral meniscus).
How does someone tear their meniscus?
Meniscus tears are among the most common knee injuries in athletes, although they can happen in anyone. They usually happen when a person twists or rotates their upper leg while their foot is planted firmly in place and their knee is bent. Meniscus tears are also common in older adults, since the menisci get weaker as we age and are more likely to tear.
How do you know if you tear your meniscus?
Symptoms of a torn meniscus may differ from person to person and it may take 24 more hours or more for some symptoms to occur. The most common symptoms of a torn meniscus include:
- Pain in your knee, especially when rotating the joint
- Swelling of your knee
- Difficulty fully straightening or bending your knee
- Feeling like your knee is locked or that it "catches" when you move it
- Feeling like your knee is unstable or will give out when you put weight on it
One sign of a meniscus tear that you may notice right away is a popping sensation in the knee when the injury occurs.
What should you do if you think you have a torn meniscus?
If you have pain, swelling and stiffness in your knee and suspect that it may be due to a torn meniscus, see a doctor. Orthopedists are specially trained to deal with knee injuries like this but you may also begin by seeing your primary doctor for an initial evaluation. A doctor will evaluate your knee and may order imaging studies, such as x-rays or an MRI to confirm the diagnosis.
What is the treatment if you have a torn meniscus?
Depending on how bad your injury is, treatment may vary. In some cases, non-surgical treatments may be suggested. These include RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation), taking non-steroidal anti-inflammatories such as ibuprofen and/or going for physical therapy to do muscle-strengthening exercises. Cortisone injections in the knee may also provide some relief.
If it is determined that you need surgery to repair your torn meniscus, this is usually done arthroscopically (using tiny incisions in your knee). The surgery takes about an hour and recovery usually takes a few weeks. The decision about whether to have meniscus surgery may depend on the size and location of the tear, how bad your symptoms are, your age and health status, and your activity level/lifestyle.
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Date Last Reviewed: May 17, 2023
Editorial Review: Andrea Cohen, Editorial Director, Baldwin Publishing, Inc. Contact Editor
Medical Review: Perry Pitkow, MD