A meniscal tear is a common injury of the knee. The meniscus is a wedge-like, shock-absorbing piece of cartilage found within your knee joint. It is shaped like a C and curves inside and outside the joint to stabilize your knee. It also allows your thigh (the femur) and your shin (the tibia) bones to glide and twist over each other with movement, as well as provide cushioning support for the weight-bearing job of your legs.
Injury to the meniscus often happens during sport activity, when a sudden twisting of the knee, pivoting, or deceleration causes a tear in your cartilage. A meniscal tear can also occur simultaneously with injury to other ligaments of the knee (in particular, the anterior cruciate ligament which helps to connect the upper and lower leg bones).
You may hear a popping sound at the time of injury to the meniscus, and you may still be able to bear weight and walk on the injured knee. Pain, swelling, and redness of the joint then develop over the next 12 to 24 hours. In some cases, a piece of cartilage can interfere with knee movement, and you may notice that your knee will “lock” or “pop” with attempted movement. Your doctor may choose to evaluate a possible tear with an MRI scan, a form of imaging that uses a large magnet to view changes in tissue.
Initial treatment of a meniscal tear follows basic home care management — “RICE,” which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDs) are helpful to relieve pain and inflammation. This may be all that is needed for minor tears that have occurred in the outer edges of the meniscus.
Surgery may be recommended for tears that are central, cause locking or instability of your knee, or for injuries that don’t heal on their own. Surgery may involve using a small, pen-sized camera (called an arthroscope) to trim torn flaps in the cartilage and repair any other damaged ligaments. Often, a brace or cast is needed after surgery, and physical therapy is an important part of recovery to relieve pain and strengthen and stabilize the muscles around your knee.