Do you ever get that weird crunchy feeling in your knees, or find that they get “stuck” when you try to stretch out your legs? Do they hurt, but in a new “no, that’s different than arthritis” way?
You could be dealing with a meniscus injury.
Don’t worry, it isn’t nearly as bad as it sounds.
What is the Meniscus, Anyway?
In layman’s terms, the meniscus is pieces of cartilage that live in our joints. Basically, they are the cartilage plate-like structures in your knees, elbows, etc. that are responsible for bearing your weight and reducing the friction that is caused by movement. They’re sort of like cushions made of cartilage.
What Does It Mean When It Tears?
Since the meniscus is made of cartilage instead of bone, it doesn’t break…it tears. The good news is that healing a tear is rarely as difficult as healing a fracture. So, tearing your meniscus isn’t the worst thing that can happen to you.
How Do Meniscus Tears Happen?
Life. Life is usually how meniscus tears happen.
When we are young, these cartilage plates are perfect and strong. As we get older, all of that walking and movement takes a toll. Degenerative tears happen simply because the meniscus has grown weak.
Sometimes, though, tears are the result of trauma like an accident or injury.
How To Know When You’ve Torn Your Meniscus
This will depend on the severity of the tear. People with very mild tears might not even know that they’ve been injured. Mild tears might feel a little stiff and vaguely achy. You will probably have trouble fully extending your leg. When you try, you’ll feel a “catch” and like something in your knee is jamming and preventing further movement.
For tears that are more severe, most people report feeling a kind of gross “popping” sensation.
The worst tear injuries are almost always immediately painful and can also cause swelling and stiffness.
What’s Your Prognosis?
Unfortunately, there is no simple answer to this question outside of “mostly good”. Why? Because there are lots of different types of tears that can happen within the meniscus.
Some tears, like radial, flap, and bucket handle tears are major issues and will require extensive attention and treatment. Others, like those that result from degeneration, will be mildly annoying and likely won’t require any special care beyond sometimes having to baby your knee.
Your outlook is going to depend on the size, shape and location of the tear.
What Should You Do If You Tear Your Meniscus?
The very first thing you should do if you think you have torn your meniscus or injured your knee in any way is to see a doctor. Even if the problem is only mildly annoying, get it checked out. Your doctor will conduct a physical examination and likely take an X-Ray and some scans. If the problem is severe, you might be referred to an orthopedic surgeon for a more definitive diagnosis.
How To Treat Meniscus Tears
The first step in meniscus tear treatment is an oldie but a goodie: you’re familiar with the RICE method, right? Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation? That’s right. It’s binge-watching on Netflix for you!
Often RICE is enough for the mildly injured. Those who experience pain can also take ibuprofen or other over the counter anti-inflammatory/painkillers.
For the moderately injured, you might want to make use of crutches to keep your weight off your knee for a while. Most doctors will advise against a brace, though, because those straighten the leg, which puts more pressure on the tear and can make the injury hurt more.
Should You Have Surgery?
If you are experiencing extreme pain and/or if your injury is not healing properly, your doctor might want to send you in for surgery.
Rest assured, surgery is always the last resort and usually is only for the most severe injuries. Even if surgery is recommended, the goal is to be as minimally invasive and to preserve as much of the meniscus as possible.
Alternatives To Surgery
Before you panic about potentially needing surgery, you should know that going under the knife is not the only treatment for a severe tear or knee injury. More and more patients are opting for alternative treatments like stem cell therapy instead of surgery.
There are quite a few reasons to opt for this alternative. Stem cell therapy:
- is far less invasive than surgery,
- is often faster than surgery,
- has a quicker recovery time than surgery, and
- patients see results sooner than they do after surgery.
Perhaps the most important reason to opt for stem cell treatment is that it is natural. Instead of relying on donor cells, we use your own stem cells to treat the tear. You will literally be healing yourself but in a turbo-charged fashion.
More and more athletes (who are all well versed in knee and other joint injuries) are opting for stem cell therapies over surgery. Check out this case study on Chris Johnson (the running back for The Jets).
Frequently Asked Questions about Meniscus Tears
Can a meniscus tear heal on its own, without surgery?
Yes. In fact, most minor and “medium strength” meniscus tears heal on their own (with the help of RICE of course).
What is the recovery time for a meniscus tear?
It depends on the severity of the tear. Minor tears can repair themselves in a few days. If the tear is severe, it can take weeks or even months.
What kind of rehab does a meniscus tear require?
Rest is very important, as this gives the cartilage time to repair itself. After that, your doctor and physical therapist will put together specific exercises to help you with your specific tear.
What are the signs that you have a meniscus tear?
Stiffness, feeling like the joint gets stuck, pain—especially when putting weight on your knee.
Do I need surgery if I have a meniscus tear?
Not necessarily! It depends on the severity of the tear.
Can I still be active after a meniscus tear?
Absolutely! Once the tear has healed, you can return to your favorite activities.
Can a knee brace help with a meniscus tear?
Most doctors discourage the use of braces because they keep the leg straight, which increases the pressure on the tear (and makes it hurt more).
Can a meniscus tear be repaired?
Can a meniscus tear get worse?
Yes, especially if you don’t give it time to heal.
Can an MRI miss a meniscus tear?
Rarely, if it is read correctly. In reality, because tears can be so varied, they can sometimes be tricky to identify…even on MRI. No imaging can replace a sound clinical exam.
Can an X-Ray see a meniscus tear?
No. X-Rays don’t pick up meniscus tears because the meniscus is made of cartilage, which doesn’t show up on X-rays.
Can you exercise with a meniscus tear?
Technically, if the tear is very small and/or mild, it is possible to (gently!) exercise. However, it is far better to give yourself a few days to heal.
Does a meniscus tear require surgery?
No! Not always, it depends on the severity and type of tear. Even if the tear is severe, and surgery is recommended, there are alternative treatments like stem cell therapy that are showing promising results, without the downtime and prolonged recovery that follows surgery.
If you’ve been feeling like your knees just haven’t been themselves lately, get them checked out!