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Meniscus Tears

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What Is a Meniscus Tear?

Your knee has two menisci. These pieces of tough cartilage rest between your thighbone (femur) and shinbone (tibia).

The menisci act as shock absorbers, allowing your thighbone and shinbone to glide against each other smoothly without causing joint damage.

A meniscus tear is an injury to one of the menisci in your knee.

Torn meniscus causes

The two most common causes of meniscus tears are:

  • Traumatic injury to the knee — often by quickly twisting or turning on a bent knee joint.
  • Degenerative tear — as people age the cartilage in their joints weakens away, increasing the risk for tears.

Meniscus tear risk factors

Anyone, at any age, can suffer a meniscus tear.

You're at higher risk for a torn meniscus if you play contact sports, such as football.

Meniscus tear complications

An untreated meniscus tear can lead to more damage in the joint and other serious conditions.

  • Lead to more damage in the joint and other serious problems.
  • Cause a piece of cartilage to become loose and drift into the joint. This can make your knee slip, pop, or lock. It can also make it hard to straighten the knee joint fully.

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Meniscus Tear Symptoms and Diagnosis

Meniscus tear symptoms

If you tear your meniscus — pieces of tough cartilage in your knee — you may have symptoms such as:

  • Knee pain
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness
  • A popping or clicking feeling in your knee

Stable and unstable meniscus tears

Doctors classify meniscus tears as either stable or unstable.

Your doctor will decide if your meniscus tear is stable or unstable based on the tear:

  • Size
  • Shape
  • Type (acute or degenerative)

Most stable meniscus tears don't need surgery. They may cause discomfort at times, but many people with a stable meniscus tear are still very active.

An unstable meniscus tear often causes ongoing discomfort and requires surgery to repair it.

Diagnosing meniscus tears

To help confirm a meniscus tear diagnosis, and rule out other knee problems, your doctor:

  • Will discuss your medical history.
  • Will perform a physical exam.
  • May also order imaging tests, such as x-rays and MRI scans.

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Meniscus Tear Treatment at UPMC Sports Medicine

When deciding how to treat a torn meniscus, your doctor will look at:

  • The extent and location of the meniscus tear.
  • When the meniscus injury occurred.
  • Your pain level and other meniscus tear symptoms.
  • Your age and activity level.

Nonsurgical meniscus tear treatments

Your doctor may suggest the following nonsurgical treatment options for your meniscus tear:

  • R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, elevation).
  • Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), such as ibuprofen.
  • Physical therapy and rehabilitation exercises.
  • A knee brace.

Meniscus tear repair surgery

There are a few surgical options to repair a torn meniscus.

Types of meniscus tear repair surgery include:

  • Sewing the tear together.
  • Partial meniscectomy to remove the torn section of the meniscus.
  • Total meniscectomy to remove the entire meniscus. In most cases, doctors avoid this type of surgery because it increases the risk for osteoarthritis in the knee.

Recovery time from meniscus tear repair surgery depends on the type you have.

Meniscus tear prevention

It can be hard to prevent a meniscus tear.

Using proper mechanics when exercising or playing sports can help lower your risk of this injury.

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