How serious is a torn meniscus? And how is it treated?

Written by: Mr David Houlihan-Burne
Edited by: Jay Staniland


What is the meniscus?

The meniscus is a fibro-cartilaginous shock-absorber within the knee. There are two of them (menisci) within the knee, one on the inside and one on the outside of the joint.


You may have heard doctors or patients, especially sports stars, talking about having torn a cartilage. A torn cartilage is another name for a torn meniscus.


How do you tear your meniscus?


Tearing of the meniscus occurs almost exclusively by a twist or fall causing an injury to the knee. This type of meniscus tear is more common in younger patients, as the meniscus is tough and rubbery and only an injury of force such as a result of playing sports, would cause an injury to the meniscus.

Another type of meniscus tear can be due to attrition from a worn out joint. In these cases, the ends of the bone are like sandpaper and grind away at the meniscus causing a different type of tear that we call degenerative tears.


How do you know you have torn your meniscus?


You know you have torn your meniscus when you have pain, particularly pin-pointed over one side of the knee, often associated with swelling, an inability to twist or turn or squat down on the knee. The knee can lock and get stuck in a certain position as well as feel unstable, such that it might give way underneath you.

In cases where a suspected torn meniscus is causing pain, advice should be sought from a specialist orthopaedic surgeon.


How can a torn meniscus be treated?


Many meniscal tears will settle down without the need for any surgical treatment, but physiotherapy to help control swelling and muscle strengthening exercises are vital.

Meniscal tears that fail to heal after six to eight weeks may require surgical removal in the form of keyhole surgery. This is a small operation that takes thirty minutes to remove the torn flap of cartilage.


How long does it take to recover from a torn meniscus?


Many menisci can heal within six weeks or so; however, if you require surgery you will require a few days off work followed by early physiotherapy and a return to full activity, usually by three or four weeks and running by six weeks.


How serious is a torn meniscus?


A torn meniscus is not a serious injury and many patients can manage and live with a small tear within their meniscus. Only if the tear is large or if it involves the whole meniscus, is this a problem that may affect the knee in the long-term and every effort should be made to preserve the meniscus by way of repairing it rather than removing it.

By Mr David Houlihan-Burne
Orthopaedic surgery

Mr David Houlihan-Burne is a highly-skilled orthopaedic surgeon based in London. Practising from a number of top medical establishments in the capital including the Fortius Clinic, he specialises in knee surgery, sports injuries and arthritis. He regularly teaches and lectures at a number of national and international conferences on field-related matters and was listed in Tatler magazine's Doctors Guide in 2013. He is a former clinical advisor to the Department of Health and pioneered the Rapid Recovery Programme, an innovative patient-centred approach to hip and knee replacement surgery. He provides care for many professional and amateur sportsmen and plays an important role in various professional bodies.

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