The knees are a vulnerable part of the body, particularly if you frequently play sports or work in manual labor. In fact, the knee joint is the most commonly injured joint amongst US athletes, and it often affects non-athletic people too!
Today, we’re talking about meniscus tears, an increasingly common knee-related injury for all age groups. If you’ve recently hurt your knee and you think your menisci may have been damaged, it’s essential that you seek medical attention. Here’s why.
What Is A Meniscus?
A meniscus is one of two menisci, the fibrocartilage inside and outside of the knee, between the tibia (lower leg bone) and femur (thigh bone). The medial meniscus sits inside the knee, and the lateral meniscus is on the outside. They act as a cushion for your femur and tibia, stabilizing the knee and absorbing shock as well as protecting the bones from being worn down and damaged.
What Is A Meniscus Tear?
Unfortunately, those menisci are fairly easy to damage, which often results in a medial or lateral meniscus tear. This can be caused by a number of things, but it most commonly occurs during activities that require direct contact with the knee or a sudden twist, pivot, or turn. Deep squatting and heavy lifting can also cause damage to the menisci and in some cases the torn cartilage can catch in the knee joint, locking the knee.
While meniscus tears most commonly affect professional athletes, it is not exclusive to athletes. Meniscus tears in children and adolescents are very common and often occur when playing sports.
But in truth, anyone can experience a meniscus tear during everyday activity, and the older a person is the more at risk they are of experiencing this kind of injury. In fact, men between 40 and 60 are at the highest risk of a meniscus tear.
That’s because the cartilage in the knee degenerates as we age, growing thinner and thus more susceptible to damage. People over the age of 30 may experience a meniscus tear simply from squatting, misstepping, or heavy lifting. Adults with osteoarthritis are also more vulnerable to meniscus tears.
There are a few clear symptoms that can indicate a meniscus tear. These include:
- Pain around the knee
- Swelling in the affected area
- A locking or ‘stuck’ feeling in the knee
- Restricted range of motion in the knee, particularly difficulty bending or straightening
- A ‘popping’ feeling during the moment of injury
- The sense that your knee is sliding forward or giving way when you try to stand on it.
If you are experiencing any combination of these symptoms during or after any kind of physical activity, you should seek medical advice as soon as possible.
Treatments For Meniscus Tear
As is the case with many physical injuries, some people choose to go without seeking out treatment for their damaged meniscus. They may prioritize rest and avoid using the injured leg, or they may attempt to continue living their everyday life as normal.
For some people, these conservative treatments may work. After all, not all meniscus tears will require surgery. A doctor may simply recommend the RICE method (Rest, Ice, Compress, Elevate), and mild painkillers such as ibuprofen or aspirin to reduce pain and swelling. In some cases, they may also refer you to a physical therapist to decrease pain and swelling, and increase mobility.
But in many cases, particularly the more severe ones, a meniscus tear must be treated via surgery if it is not healing on its own. During the surgery, your surgeon will repair the torn meniscus, and even trim some parts if necessary. You will then undergo physical therapy and be given recovery instructions to ensure your knee heals properly in the coming weeks.
Consequences Of An Untreated Meniscus Tear
So what actually happens if your meniscus tear goes untreated? And can a torn meniscus heal on its own? Well, in some cases it isn’t a big deal. If the tear is simple, the knee is not locked, and the pain and swelling can be managed with OTC medication, it may be as simple as resting and waiting for it to heal itself. Sometimes that will be sufficient, particularly for younger patients.
But that certainly isn’t true for everyone. Depending on the type of injury, an untreated meniscus tear can increase in size over time, eventually leading to further injuries and complications with the knee in the long term, including arthritis. The torn meniscus cartilage may even be at risk of slipping into the knee joint causing more severe pain, and inflammation and your knee will have decreased function.
Without diagnosis and appropriate treatment, meniscus tears will take longer to heal and pain will be prolonged, particularly for older patients. It can even cause issues with your hip joints in the long term.
For these reasons, we recommend that anyone who has experienced a meniscus tear should seek medical help as soon as possible. While it may not be a serious injury, and your knee may not require surgery, it is still advisable to get your doctor’s advice on how best to treat the injury to avoid complications in the future.
If you think you have experienced a meniscus tear, reach out to our team at Kellie Middleton MD. Our practice is located in Atlanta GA and specializes in orthopedic surgery for sports-related injuries. You can send us an email or call 770-509-4030 to book your first consultation.