A torn meniscus is a common knee injury, often affecting older people with active lifestyles. Studies reveal that 60% of people over the age of 65 have experienced a meniscal tear. When neglected, meniscus tears keep the knee from functioning correctly and can cause the joint to break down. Keep reading to learn about the causes and symptoms of a torn meniscus, plus how to diagnose and treat the injury.
Three bones form the knee joint: the kneecap (patella), the shinbone (tibia), and the thighbone (femur). Between the femur and tibia are two wedged, kidney-shaped pieces of cartilage. These are known as menisci, which cushion the knee, protect the joint, and add stability.
When damaged, menisci can no longer absorb impact and facilitate smooth motion. A torn lateral meniscus is located on the outer side of the knee, and a torn medial meniscus can be found on the inside of the knee.
Types of Meniscus Tears
Menisci damage is classified by appearance and location. Here are the different types of meniscus tears.
This injury happens on the side of the meniscus. When the inner tissue splits away from the edge, it results in a flap.
In a degenerative tear, injury to the menisci causes progressively increasing damage near the outside of the meniscus.
Bucket Handle Tear
A bucket handle tear occurs between the interior tissue and the outer edge of the meniscus. Once the edge of the meniscus becomes separated from the rest of the cartilage and the torn piece lifts up, a bucket handle shape develops.
In this type of tear, the damage happens on one edge of the meniscus and moves into the tissue, which is perpendicular to the edge.
Torn Meniscus Causes
What causes a torn meniscus? Most commonly, the underlying cause of meniscal tears is a traumatic injury. Understanding the causes will help guide treatment decisions.
Sports injury. Sudden me niscus tears, either full or partial, most often occur during sports. Impact to the front or side of the knee forces the joint to move to the side. This leads to a tear of either menisci or the anterior cruciate ligament ( ACL).
A degenerative joint condition. When an older person experiences a torn meniscus, the injury is more likely to be linked with a degenerative joint condition like knee osteoarthritis. With this sort of condition, the cartilage of the meniscus becomes less rubbery and resilient, allowing it to be more easily torn.
Repetitive movements. Cartilage in the knee weakens over time. Constantly squatting up and down throughout the day or stepping on an uneven surface may lead to injury if you have weak menisci. A worn, aged tissue is more vulnerable to tears. A quick turn or a wrong twist when getting up from a chair may be enough to cause a torn meniscus.
Torn Meniscus Symptoms
The symptoms of meniscus tears vary according to the location of the tear, the time that has elapsed since the injury, and your overall health. Common symptoms of a torn meniscus include:
Torn meniscus swelling. This happens when there is a fluid accumulation in the knee joint. Once the entire area has swollen up and become stiff, you will experience decreased mobility. This symptom is called “water in the knee.”
Torn meniscus pain. The pain reflects the location of the tear, but it often extends throughout the knee with movement. Intense pain happens when rotating or twisting the knee.
A popping sensation. A piece of meniscus may come loose and move into the joint. The tearing of the meniscus is often accompanied by a snapping or popping feeling. In some cases, patients feel the sensation of the knee giving out.
Knee locking. When you try moving your knee, you feel as though it is locked. When a piece of the meniscus escapes from the disc structure because of a tear, you may find it hard to fully straighten your leg when standing, or even when sitting.
Torn Meniscus Diagnosis
Consult your doctor for a professional diagnosis to determine whether your knee pain is caused by a torn meniscus. Your doctor will help you determine the severity of the damage and which meniscus is torn, before recommending the best treatment program for your specific injury. To get an accurate torn meniscus diagnosis, your doctor will use these methods:
1. Medical History
Your doctor will first ask about your medical history and symptoms—your injury’s onset, whether the knee over-rotated, if you heard a popping sound, and whether pain was immediate.
2. Physical Examination
Your doctor will conduct a physical examination to gauge your range of motion by moving your leg in different directions. This is to discover whether the tear is of the medial or lateral meniscus and if leg locking is present.
3. MRI Scan
Your doctor will require a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check the size, location, and severity of the meniscal tear. This type of diagnostic test produces clear torn meniscus images of the soft tissues in the knee joint. What does a torn meniscus look like? An MRI will show you. It will also help your doctor determine whether torn pieces of the meniscus are lodged within the joint and how much excess fluid is in your knee.
Torn Meniscus Treatment
Repairing a torn meniscus does not have to be stressful. With the right torn meniscus treatment options, you can quickly regain strength and flexibility in your knee. The type of tear you have, your activity level, your age, and any related injuries will factor into your treatment plan.
Talk to your doctor and plan a rehab program, which is suitable for both conservative treatment and following surgery. Below are safe and effective rehabilitation exercises to help you get back to your favorite activities.
RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. It is effective for most sports-related injuries. If the tear is small, the RICE protocol may be all you need—as long as your knee is stable and your symptoms do not persist.
Take a break from the activities that caused the injury, and avoid putting weight on your leg.
Apply an ice pack to your knee for 15 minutes every couple hours. Do not apply it directly to your skin. Cold therapy reduces pain and swelling. Also, try contrast therapy for even greater benefits.
Wearing a compression bandage will reduce swelling by applying force to the injured tissue. A compression knee sleeve also prevents fatigue and improves muscle performance, while protecting the knee from chaffing, blisters, and abrasions.
Compression knee sleeves encourage healing by reducing inflammation and improving circulation. ( See Product )
Elevate your knee above the level of your heart to decrease the pooling of fluid. Try reclining when you rest to lessen swelling in your knees.
Neuromuscular electrical stimulation of the muscles in the knee will ease pain and disperse swelling. When used correctly, it can encourage healing in your knee. A TENS unit, provides safe pain management for aching, tense muscles. Use pre-programmed modes like massage, acupuncture, and cupping to strengthen the meniscus and surrounding tissues.
A TENS unit is a simple, portable way to reduce the recovery time for your torn meniscus. (See Product )
Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medicines, such as aspirin and ibuprofen, can keep swelling at bay shortly after the injury.
Consider a corticosteroid injection to relieve searing pain and inflammation in the soft tissue.
Torn Meniscus Brace
A knee brace for a meniscus injury can help you recover faster. Look for a brace that is adjustable to prevent re-injury. The right torn meniscus brace will alleviate symptoms, provide support, and reduce swelling with compression.
Wraparound Knee Brace
A universal knee brace is a great option for most cases. It provides a solid amount of compression and support, without being too bulky.
Wraparound knee braces are adjustable to provide customizable support and compression. ( See Product )
Hinged Knee Brace
For walking and exercise, a high-quality hinged knee brace will protect the medial knee cartilage and ligament. A hinged brace is ideal for active elderly people with weak or injured knees. Using it can prevent future joint degeneration.
Hinged knee braces provide the greatest level of stabilization and are ideal for severe meniscus injuries. ( See Product )
Patella Knee Straps
If you don’t need much support, patella knee straps are a comfortable, discreet choice. They work by applying targeted compression to the tendon below the kneecap. They’re so comfortable, you’ll forget you’re even wearing them.
Knee straps provide the least support, but relieve pain by applying targeted compression to the tendon below the kneecap. (See Product )
Torn Meniscus Exercises
To increase your range of motion, perform simple torn meniscus exercises early in your rehab program. Exercises help maintain the muscle strength in the hamstring, quads, calf, and hip. These areas are essential for your overall leg function.
Stop the exercise if you feel pain. Always consult your doctor before trying any new exercise routine.
Step 1:Lie on the floor with your legs straight in front of you.
Step 2:Slowly slide the heel of your injured leg toward you. Only bend your knee as far as is comfortable.
Step 3:Hold for a few seconds, then return to the starting position.
Step 4:Perform at least 2 sets of 15.
Step 1:Lie on your uninjured side with your knees bent at 90 degrees and feet together.
Step 2:Rest your head on your hand or arm.
Step 3:Lift your top leg toward the ceiling, keeping your heels together.
Step 4:Hold the position for 2 seconds, then lower your leg slowly.
Step 5:Work up to 2 sets of 15.
Step 1:Stand tall and place the foot of your affected leg on a bench or a block of wood. Keep your other foot flat on the floor.
Step 2:Shift your weight onto the injured leg, then raise your uninjured knee no higher than your hips.
Step 3:Breathe out, and straighten your injured leg.
Step 4:Slowly return to the starting position.
Step 5:Perform 2 sets of 15.
Wall Squat with a Ball
Step 1: Stand with your head, shoulders, and back against a wall. Your feet should be shoulder-width apart and 3 feet from the wall.
Step 2: Hold an exercise ball behind your back.
Step 3: Slowly squat to a 45-degree angle or as far as is comfortable.
Step 4: Hold the position for 10 seconds, then slide back up and straighten your legs.
Step 5: Complete 2 sets of 15.
Prone Hip Extension
Step 1: Lie on your stomach with your legs straight behind you. Relax your shoulders and upper back.
Step 2: Fold your arms and rest your head on them.
Step 3: Tighten the thigh muscles on your injured side, then slowly raise your leg off the floor, keeping your leg straight.
Step 4: Hold this position for at least 5 seconds, then lower your leg and relax.
Step 5: Perform 2 sets of 15.
Torn Meniscus Surgery
The need for surgical repair depends largely on the type and severity of the tear. If it is severe, or if the patient has suffered repeated knee injuries, surgery may be required to remove the meniscus or to repair the damaged tissues.
The most common types of torn meniscus surgery include meniscectomy and repair. The chance of success is higher for patients who seek treatment promptly after injury. For a meniscus repair, rehabilitation time is typically about three months. A meniscectomy, on the other hand, requires about three to four weeks.
A torn meniscus typically takes six to eight weeks to fully heal. You and your doctor should work together to avoid possible complications. You’ll likely need to limit motion for two weeks before resuming normal activities.
Early diagnosis and accurate treatment methods are crucial to a full recovery. Be sure to abide by your doctor’s instructions as you transition back to your everyday life. Continue visiting your doctor regularly to prevent re-injury, and use a high-quality knee brace to protect your knee and keep your joint functioning smoothly.
Jessica Hegg is the content manager and at ViveHealth.com. With vast product knowledge and understanding of individual needs, she aims to share valuable information on making smart buying choices, overcoming obstacles and overall improving the quality of life for others. Avid gym-rat and nutrition enthusiast, she’s interested in all things related to staying active and living healthy lifestyle.
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