The meniscus is a thick pad of smooth cartilage in your knee that sits between the ends of your shinbone and thigh bone. There are two pads in each knee joint and their main functions are to:
Meniscus cartilage is tough and elastic but can be torn or damaged through trauma or because it’s weakened with wear and tear as you age. It is one of the most common knee injuries. A tear will almost always affect the function of your knee and your ability to continue with many activities until it recovers or is repaired.
There are two main causes:
A meniscus tear can also be caused by deep squatting, kneeling or lifting something heavy.
Your symptoms may be mild at first, allowing you to continue with your activity. However, as inflammation increases, your knee will hurt more and stop you from continuing.
The most common symptoms are:
Other symptoms include:
Risk factors include:
A meniscus tear can make you feel that your knee is giving way and restrict the movement of your knee. It can lead to persistent knee pain and increase your risk of osteoarthritis in the affected knee.
See your GP if your knee is:
Your GP should be able to give you a diagnosis from a simple examination. They'll ask you if there's anything you may have done to cause a meniscus tear, such as a sports injury, and make a physical assessment of your knee. This involves gently moving your knee and leg into different positions and watching you walk and squat if you can.
They may also recommend that you go for an X-ray or MRI scan to rule out other conditions. An X-ray can’t detect a meniscus tear as the meniscus is made of cartilage, not bone, but it can rule out other knee problems with similar symptoms. An MRI scan uses radio waves and a strong magnetic field to create detailed images of both soft and hard tissues in your knee and will detect a meniscus tear.
Treatment of your meniscus tear depends on:
In most cases, a torn meniscus will recover on its own, particularly in younger people. To allow this to happen you should:
If your meniscus tear is associated with arthritis, treatment for your arthritis will often help you recover from your meniscus tear over time. If your meniscus tear is not associated with poor knee movement or locking of your knee, it will also often improve over time without any intervention. Surgery is therefore not usually needed.
Where a meniscus tear is caused by ageing, symptoms often come and go and your GP will usually advise you to rest your knee and use painkillers at these times. Physical therapy can also help by strengthening the muscles in your legs and around your knee, which helps stabilise and support your knee joint.
Cartilage is a tough, protective material that is designed to protect bones for a lifetime. It doesn’t repair or regenerate itself easily so treatment is often about managing symptoms.
Your doctor may recommend surgery if your knee is ‘locked’. This will be performed by arthroscopy, where your consultant uses telescopic instruments to look inside the knee and remove any meniscus cartilage that's preventing movement of your knee joint.
Sometimes, torn meniscus cartilage can be repaired using sutures or stitches to hold it together. Surgeons are also developing new techniques to transplant cartilage.
After your surgery, you will need to perform exercises to strengthen the muscles in and around your knee, which will help stabilise it. In 85-90% of people who have meniscus tear surgery, the short-term results are very good.
However, if you have a large meniscus tear, in the long term you will have a greater risk of developing arthritis in your affected knee. If you have advanced arthritis, your doctor may recommend knee replacement surgery. If you are younger and experience symptoms of arthritis in your knee but do not have advanced arthritis, your doctor may recommend a meniscus transplant surgery.
Meniscus tears often occur by accident, which makes them hard to prevent but you can take precautions to reduce your risk, including:
Can a meniscus tear heal on its own?
In most cases, especially in younger people, a meniscus tear will heal on its own. However, this will depend on several factors including:
Can you walk around with a torn meniscus?
Whether you can walk with a torn meniscus will depend on how severe the tear is. Many people can walk with a meniscus tear if their knee does not lock and their movement is not too restricted. If a shredded piece of cartilage gets caught in your knee, you may not be able to walk.
How do you know if you have a torn meniscus in your knee?
A torn meniscus is usually caused by accident eg suddenly pivoting, rotating or twisting your knee. At first, your symptoms may be mild but as the inflammation sets in, the pain will increase. Common symptoms include:
Other symptoms include:
How long does it take for a torn meniscus to heal without surgery?
Recovery without surgery will depend on the severity of your meniscus tear as well as your activity level, age and other associated injuries. However, in general, with rest, your meniscus tear can heal in four to eight weeks.
If you have a meniscus tear, you should see your GP to determine whether or not you need treatment and for advice on how to aid your recovery.
What is the best exercise for a torn meniscus?
Recovering from a torn meniscus will initially mean resting your knee. However, as your recovery progresses you can perform exercises to strengthen your leg and knee muscles. Follow your GP’s advice before you start exercising. Exercises that help strengthen and stabilise your knee include:
Does a torn meniscus hurt to touch?
Yes, a torn meniscus can hurt to touch due to the swelling and inflammation. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatory painkillers can help reduce both inflammation, pain and swelling.