The meniscus is a piece of cartilaginous tissue that exists between your femur and tibia right at the joint line. There are actually two parts – the medial and lateral meniscus. Together, these pieces of cartilage help to distribute forces in the knee, stabilize the knee, and provide some information about knee position in space. There is some evidence that meniscal injuries lead to a greater chance of developing arthritis later in life regardless of whether surgery is performed.
Types of Meniscus Injuries
Acute – These are actually the rarer type of knee injuries. Acute injuries of the meniscus usually happen when twisting or fully flexing your knee with weight going through it. Sometimes in these positions, a tear can be produced in the meniscus. This isn’t unlike spraining your ankle and the prognosis for these tears is very good. Certain types of tears—where the knee “locks” and you have to manually straighten you knee—might be indications for surgery. These are very very rare.
Gradual (age-related) – The vast majority of meniscus tears occur over time and many don’t cause any pain at all. In fact, about 1 in 5 middle aged adults has a tear and 1 in 2 over 55 has a tear.1 Why some tears become painful and others do not is not entirely clear, but what is clear is that these tears are not a serious problem and generally get better with simple exercises – just like acute tears. If you have some arthritis in your knee, sometimes it can take longer for your knee to get better.
What Should You Do?
If you think you may have injured your meniscus, such as you have pain at the joint line, maybe some clicking and limited movement in your knee, you want to keep your knee moving. In the video below, Dr. Kirstin Weible, DPT from The Motive demonstrates some simple exercises that we have found effective for meniscus injuries in the early stages. It also helps to focus on reducing swelling in the knee. You can do this by elevating your knee if it is swollen and warm, wearing some compression around the knee, and keeping it moving. You may choose to ice your knee, but that is up to you and your personal preference. It also makes sense to minimize deep squats and twisting movements in the early days after an injury.
The knee pain should begin to improve. If it does not, it may be a good idea to get a physical therapist to take a look at your knee and provide a plan for you to get back to normal activities. As you get back to exercise and doing activities like squatting and twisting on your knee, it typically helps to do so while monitoring your response. It is very important to focus on getting back quadriceps strength and hip muscle strength in order to better support and stabilize your knee after an injury.
Remember, meniscus injuries are not “serious injuries.” They can seriously hurt, but they are not something that should be too concerning. If you can continue to move your knee and stay active and perhaps see a physical therapist, your prognosis for getting back to life is good.
- Englund M, Guermazi A, Gale D, et al. Incidental meniscal findings on knee MRI in middle-aged and elderly persons. N Engl J Med. 2008;359(11):1108-1115. doi:10.1056/NEJMoa0800777