For any population, knee pain can be one of the most debilitating things one can deal with. You can wake up one day with some fluid in your knee making it painful to move and put weight on it, and that sort of thing messes with even the simplest of daily activities. One of the more common culprits that may be causing swelling and pain in the knee is a meniscus tear.
The meniscus (or menisci for plural) is a piece of cartilage in your knee that cushions and stabilizes the joint assisting for smooth movement and comfortable weight-bearing. All it takes is one good twist or quick turn of the knee to tear your meniscus, often with the foot still planted and the knee bent.
It is very common in contact sports like football and non-contact, jumping sports like basketball and volleyball but can also happen just by lifting something heavy. They are also common in older athletes because the meniscus weakens with age and a full-fledged tear may just be secondary to wear and tear that was previously there.
The knee is a complex joint, and a number of options may be causing your knee pain. So here are a few ideas as to how to determine if your pain may be coming from a meniscus issue. Meniscus tears do not always cause a lot of pain at first and most athletes are able to continue playing after the initial injury. But once the inflammation sets in that’s when the pain sets in.
If you had a traumatic incident while doing something active and possibly felt a pop, that’s a good place to start. Pain is always going to be an indicator of any injury but put pain with a popping sensation and your knee may have a significant problem.
With a meniscus injury, you will generally have pain that is “deep” in the knee that may feel like you have a small pebble lodged in the joint causing the knee to lock. You will also experience pain along the “joint line” of the knee which is the space between your femur and tibia where your menisci sit.
Depending on how the meniscus may be torn, you may have difficulty bending or extending your knee, feeling like it’s locking when you get to a certain point. When you have all of the aforementioned signs paired with fluid in your knee, you may want to consult a doctor.
When trying to diagnosis a meniscus tear, your doctor will use your history of past injuries as a tool in this process. They will also test your range of motion, strength, and the stability of your knee. An MRI is used to give a clear picture of the joint and can show exactly where the tear is located within the knee and how serious it is.
Treatment for a meniscus tear can vary, based on how serious the tear is, where it is located and the type of tear. The outer most part of a meniscus can typically heal itself with rest and some physical therapy but the inner most area of the meniscus does not get good blood flow making it difficult to heal.
Typical treatment includes rest, ice, compression with an elastic wrap and elevate to help with the pain and swelling. Physical therapy is used to help maintain range of motion and strengthen the quads and hamstrings.
Surgery may be needed to repair the meniscus in most cases. Surgery is done arthroscopically so there is little scarring and damage to the surrounding tissue. When having meniscus surgery there are two different types that the doctor can do; the most common being a partial menisectomy. This is where they remove the part of the meniscus that is torn.
Patients normally are allowed to bear weight with crutches as quickly as possible after this surgery, without being immobilized. It is not uncommon for athletes to return to activity in as little as 14 days after this surgery but typical recovery is between four to six weeks. With this type of surgery, a doctor will warn you that this may cause arthritis earlier in the future because you’re literally taking away part of the cushion that bears your body weight and doctors always look out for your long-term health.
If the surgeon chooses to repair the meniscus instead of doing a menisectomy then the athlete will be immobilized and on crutches right after surgery, again because this is a weight-bearing joint and simply putting weight on your leg may irritate any sutures used to repair the meniscus. Recovery for this type of meniscus surgery is around six months. The athlete will be required to attend physical therapy to help regain full range of motion and work on endurance.