The ends of the three bones in the knee joint—femur, tibia, and patella—are covered with cartilage that cushions the bones and allows the joint to move easily without pain. Between these bones, two C-shaped disks of connective tissue, called menisci, act as shock absorbers to cushion the lower part of the leg from the weight of the rest of the body.
Meniscal tears typically happen during a rotating movement while bearing weight, like twisting the upper leg while the foot is planted.
Signs and symptoms of a torn meniscus
Each person may exhibit different symptoms, but the most common are:
- The knee may catch, click, or “lock.”
- The knee may feel weak or unstable.
- Pain, especially when holding the knee straight. Pain may be worse at night when you lay on the side of the torn meniscus.
- A popping sensation.
- Knee joint swelling and stiffness.
If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, you should do your best to not walk on that knee to prevent pain and further injury. Then, see your provider as soon as possible for a physical exam and imaging tests.
An untreated torn meniscus won’t heal on its own, and it may lead to chronic pain and long-term instability in the affected knee, especially if the blood supply to the knee joint and cartilage has been affected.
Treatment options for meniscus tears
Your UCHealth provider will develop a personalized treatment plant based on your injury, activity level and other conditions like your overall health. It will likely include RICE treatment, which you can do at home to ease your discomfort and speed healing:
- R for rest. Rest the injured area by not using it for 24 hours. When you’re ready, return slowly to your normal activities. Rest the injured area often. Don’t use or walk on an injured limb if it hurts.
- I for ice. Use ice for the first 24 to 48 hours after injury to reduce swelling and pain. Ice the injury for no more than 20 minutes at a time and allow at least 20 minutes between icing sessions.
- C for compression. Wrap an injured limb firmly with an elastic bandage. This provides support and helps prevent swelling. Don’t wear an elastic bandage overnight. Watch for tingling, numbness, or increased pain. Remove the bandage immediately if any of these occurs.
- E for elevate. Elevate the injured area to help reduce swelling and throbbing. It’s best to raise an injured limb above the level of your heart.
In addition, over-the-counter medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce pain. If your symptoms still persist, your doctor may suggest arthroscopic surgery. Your surgeon inserts a thin tube fitted with an HD camera and surgical tools, called an arthroscope, through a tiny incision(s) to perform a procedure depending on the type of tear. This can include:
- Meniscectomy. Your surgeon removes the damaged meniscus.
- Meniscus repair. We can repair some meniscus tears by suturing (stitching) the torn pieces together. Because the meniscus must heal back together, recovery time for a repair is much longer than from a meniscectomy.
- Partial meniscectomy. Your surgeon trims away the damaged meniscus.
After surgery, you will be assigned a program of rehabilitation exercises and physical therapy. A meniscus repair typically takes around three months to completely heal. A meniscectomy requires less time, from three to four weeks.
Recovery from a torn meniscus
At UCHealth, meniscus tears are one of the most common knee injuries we treat, and you can count on the deep expertise of our orthopedic and sports medicine specialists.
Your personalized treatment plan will help your knee heal so you can perform the way you did pre-injury—and pain-free.
Orthoinfo: American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Meniscus Tears (https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases–conditions/meniscus-tears/)
National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI): National Library of Medicine. Meniscal Tears: Current Understanding, Diagnosis, and Management (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7359983/)