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Whether it’s a quick pivot on the basketball court or an awkward kneel while gardening, chances are you know how knee pain can stop you in your tracks. A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries, affecting athletes and amateurs alike.

Andrew Haas, MD, an orthopedic surgeon at Summit Health, explains what causes this injury, symptoms, treatment options and recovery.

What causes a torn meniscus?

The meniscus is a C-shaped piece of cartilage that works as a cushion between your thighbone and shinbone; each of your knees has two. The meniscus helps with weight transfer between these bones and aids knee stability.

Activities involving forceful twisting or rotation of the knee can cause a torn meniscus. Cartilage degeneration as you age can also lead to a tear. Dr. Haas says meniscus tears are further described by their location and appearance or pattern.

“The patterns of tears include degenerative, flap, peripheral, radial, bucket handle and horizontal cleavage,” he explains. “Each pattern has a different prognosis and treatment course.”

Torn meniscus symptoms

You might feel a pop in your knee when you tear your meniscus. Other common symptoms that can develop include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling or stiffness
  • Difficulty extending the knee fully
  • A catching or locking sensation
  • Feeling like the knee is giving way

While most people can walk on their injured knee, prompt evaluation will help determine treatment and speed of recovery. Diagnosing a torn meniscus involves a physical exam and may include imaging tests.

How is a torn meniscus treated?

“Some meniscus tears can heal themselves or stop being a source of pain and swelling,” says Dr. Haas. In these cases, a provider may recommend nonsurgical treatments to relieve pain, reduce swelling, and strengthen muscles that support the knee. These treatments can include:

  • Over-the-counter medicines, such as ibuprofen or aspirin
  • RICE protocol (rest, ice, compression, and elevation)
  • Corticosteroid injections
  • Physical therapy

“The patterns of tearing affect recovery based on the location of the tear, the shape of the tearand the size of the tear,” Dr. Haas continues. For example, a tear on the outer one-third of the meniscus may heal on its own or with surgical repair.

For more serious tears or tears that don’t respond to nonsurgical treatment, your provider may recommend a minimally invasive procedure called arthroscopy. During arthroscopic surgery, a surgeon makes small incisions in the knee to insert a tiny camera and surgical instruments. Using these tools, the surgeon can then trim damaged meniscus tissue or stitch up a tear. 

After surgery, you’ll need to do rehabilitative exercises to restore knee mobility and strength. Rehabilitation can take from several weeks to several months.

Dr. Haas says a torn meniscus is one of the most common orthopedic injuries. Fortunately, most people recover fully with treatment.

“Most patients can expect a full return to their pre-injury level of activity after a timely and appropriate diagnosis and course of treatment and rehabilitation,” he says.

Summit Health can help.

Knee pain is a common problem. If you are experiencing symptoms like pain, swelling or stiffness, make an appointment with an orthopedist for evaluation and treatment.