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Meniscus Tear Overview

by Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT February 21, 2020 0 Comments

Pain on knee cap

Torn meniscus pain is common, 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.

What is a Torn Meniscus?

Three bones form the knee joint: the kneecap (patella), the shinbone (tibia), and the thigh bone (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.

Flap Tear

This injury happens on the side of the meniscus. When the inner tissue splits away from the edge, it results in a flap.

Degenerative Tear

In a degenerative tear, injury to the menisci causes progressively increasing damage near the outside of the meniscus.

Acute Tear

A sudden injury to the meniscus from forceful bending and/or twisting of the knee.  This is most common with sports.                                                               

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.

Radial Tear

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 meniscus tears, either full or partial, most often occur during sports. Impact to the front or side of the knee forces the joint to move sideways.  Forced bending, twisting, and changes in direction can also cause damage. These lead to a tear of either menisci or the anterior cruciate ligament ( ACL).

A degenerative joint condition

Past 50, knee injuries are more likely to be linked with a degenerative joint condition like knee osteoarthritis. A meniscus tear can both cause and be caused by OA. With OA, the cartilage of the meniscus is unevenly worn and 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 bad form that unevenly strains the knee joints, specifically the menisci. A worn, aged, and imbalanced 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.

Physical therapy can help return function to an injured knee, while also training the body to move correctly.

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:


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 sometimes called “water in the knee.”


The pain reflects the location of the tear, typically easy to pinpoint via palpation, but it often extends throughout the knee with movement. Intense pain happens when rotating or twisting the knee.

Popping or Clicking Sensation

 A piece of meniscus may come loose and move into the joint occasionally or permanently (depending on whether it’s partially or completely torn). 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. They may also assess lower body strength, swelling, and more. 

3. MRI Scan

If needed, your doctor may request a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to check the size, location, and severity of the meniscal tear. It all depends on the severity of your symptoms. 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 Recovery Time

A torn meniscus typically takes six to eight weeks to fully heal. Ultimately, it depends on how you choose to treat your injury, whether conservatively or surgically.  Physical therapy is always a great place to start. 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 consider using a high-quality knee brace to protect your knee and keep your joint functioning smoothly.




Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT
Jaydee Vykoukal, PT, DPT

JayDee Vykoukal is a Doctor of Physical Therapy, owner of the healthy habit platform Health Means Wealth, and freelance medical writer. She loves traveling and spending time with her family in nature. Her passion is helping others continue to participate in the activities they love through education and proper exercise.

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