If you have had knee pain recently, or periodically for months or years, it’s possible that you have a meniscus tear, also referred to as “torn cartilage.” A meniscus tear often occurs during a twisting or pivoting motion with the foot planted on the ground – for example, when playing tennis or squatting in the garden – and it can also occur from lifting. A tear can occur at any time during life, but it is rarely seen in young children. With age, the menisci become worn and may tear more easily.
The symptoms of a meniscus tear depend on the size and location of the tear. Because the menisci have no nerve endings, pain associated with a tear is actually due to swelling and injury to the surrounding tissue. With a small tear, you may experience minimal pain. Over several days, slight swelling may develop gradually. Often, you may walk with minimal pain, but squatting, lifting, or rising from a seated position may increase the pain. Small tears may possibly heal on their own with a brace and a period of rest.
With a typical meniscus tear, you will feel pain at the side or center of the knee, depending on the tear’s location. Often, walking is not impeded, and the knee may swell or feel stiff. You may also experience limited bending of the knee. Over time, symptoms may diminish but could recur with activities that involve twisting or overuse of the knee. Pain may appear and disappear over a period of years, and the tear may become larger if left untreated. Other symptoms include tenderness when pressing on the meniscus, popping or clicking within the knee, and limited motion of the knee joint.
The location of the tear may determine whether or not the knee is able to heal on its own. Tears at the outer edge of the meniscus tend to heal more easily because there is a good blood supply. However, the inner two-thirds of the meniscus does not have a good blood supply, which makes it difficult for tears to heal on their own. In time, this may cause the knee to develop arthritis.
Ice packs and immobilization can be used for immediate treatment of almost any knee injury. Such simple measures will help to decrease swelling and pain in the joint. When a tear begins to interfere with everyday activities, arthroscopic surgery may be necessary to prevent additional damage and to restore the knee’s full functional abilities.