Torn Meniscus

Learn about torn meniscus, knee injury, causes, symptoms, diagnosis, and treatment at Lehigh Valley Health Network.

A torn meniscus (a crescent-shaped disk of connective tissue in the knee) can be painful and lead to arthritis in the knee. It causes pain and swelling in the knee and sometimes locking of the knee.

The menisci in the knees act as shock absorbers to cushion the lower part of the legs from the weight of the rest of the body. A torn meniscus can be minor, with the meniscus staying connected to the knee, or major, with the meniscus barely attached to the knee by a thread of cartilage. 

Meniscus tears typically occur when you twist or rotate your upper leg while your foot stays in one place. Sports in which these injuries are common include basketball, skiing and those that require athletic shoes with cleats. Sometimes, however, you might not recall having done anything specific to cause the tear.

Meniscal tears are less common in people under age 30, as the menisci in younger people are fairly tough and rubbery. As people age, the menisci weaken, and tears can occur more easily, even from something as simple as squatting or stepping off a curb onto an uneven surface. These tears also can occur as a result of gradual degenerative conditions such as osteoarthritis.

Meniscal tears can occur in several locations. Sometimes, a tear happens along the periphery, or rim, of the meniscus, creating a kind of flap in the tissue. This is called a bucket-handle tear. The whole rim can be torn, or a tear can go across the center of the meniscus. Degenerative tears can happen anywhere in the meniscus. When that happens, the meniscus can be torn in several directions and look frayed.

A torn meniscus can heal without treatment if it is small and located on the edges of the meniscus. A minor or moderate tear will often heal in two to three weeks. Ice and rest usually are adequate treatment. If the tear is closer to the middle of the meniscus or if it is severe, your doctor probably will recommend surgery.

Torn meniscus treatment may include:

  • RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation)
  • Anti-inflammatory medications, such as ibuprofen
  • Cortisone injections
  • Muscle-strengthening exercises
  • Arthroscopic surgery