The menisci help distribute the weight of the body evenly across the knee joint. Without menisci, a disproportionate amount of the load could be placed on either the tibia or the femur. Thus the menisci help protect the joint.
A major sign that a patient has a torn meniscus is pain and swelling in the knee area. This can happen gradually, as osteoarthritis starts to wear away the cartilage. Meniscal tears also occur in younger people who play sports; in this case, the patient may report hearing a clicking sound, or feel a catch or locking in the knee during motion. In these cases, the patient may feel no pain until he tries to employ the joint in a movement similar to the one that caused the injury.
There are tests to help determine whether the patient has a torn meniscus. One is to check for swelling or tenderness along the joint line. Bending the knee is often painful when there is a torn meniscus. Range of motion is limited with this type of knee injury.
If a patient reports pain when they try to turn over in bed at night, this can be indicative of a torn meniscus. Another sign is pain when the patient attempts to perform a squat.
How to Diagnose and Treat Meniscal Tears
Meniscal tears are slow to heal if left to themselves, but traumatic tears— like the an injury to a football player when he is tackled while the knee is bent— are more likely to result in a movable fragment that catches in the joint and requires surgical treatment. In this case, a torn piece of cartilage may be interferring with normal knee movement.
Degenerative meniscal tears are more common in older people but are also seen in young people. A degenerative type of injury usually results in a horizontal tear. These arthritis-related tears are less likely to produce the catching or locking sensation of a traumatized knee.
The doctor will perform a physical exam on patients who are suspected of having a meniscal tear, and may order imaging tests (typically done while the patient is in a weight-bearing stance). Because x-rays don’t show soft tissue such as menisci, the doctor may order an MRI.
A meniscal tear may be classified according to location and severity. Surgical decisions can be decided by the patient’s age, activity level, type of tear, related injuries and the potential for complete meniscus tar surgery recovery.
Since the menisci support up to half of the body’s weight in a standing position, it’s important to protect them. Appropriate footwear is crucial, especially for sports such as football. Stretching before practice or a match also can help prevent meniscal tears.