Symptoms Of Meniscal Injury In The Knee

The meniscus is the tough cartilage that cushions the bones in our knee joint. We explain how these injuries occur, and help you recognize the symptoms of a damaged meniscus.

Our knee is the largest joint in our body, and plays a critical role in stabilization and weight bearing. The ends of our tibia and femur bones meet and move against each other in the knee joint. Two types of cartilage assist bone movement in the knee. Slippery articular cartilage covers the bone tips and reduces friction during movement. A crescent-shaped pad of tough fibrocartilage, called the meniscus, lies between the weight-bearing bone surfaces to cushion them. There are two menisci in a normal knee. When the meniscus is damaged, knees can become painful, lose stability, and trigger the development of osteoarthritis.

There are two ways that a meniscus can be injured.

  • Traumatic tears. A blow or sudden twisting of the joint can compress and tear a portion of the meniscus. Typically, this injury is the result of falling back on the heel while the lower leg is rotating; football is one example of a sport where players are at risk for a meniscus injury.
  • Degenerative tears. As we age, the meniscus can dry out and become less elastic. When the meniscus is less pliable, it doesn’t take a sudden, violent incident to cause a tear. A degenerative tear can be caused by something as simple as lowering your body into a deep squat that puts pressure on your knees.

Types of meniscus tears vary from a short split in the body of the meniscus to a strip or flap of meniscal tissue torn from the cartilage. Symptoms of a damaged meniscus include the following:

  • Pain. You may feel localized pain between the bones in the knee joint on the side of the knee where the meniscus is torn.
  • Swelling. Meniscus tears don’t typically cause dramatic swelling, but low-level swelling may become apparent the day after the injury, accompanied by stiffness and limping.
  • Locked knee. When a flap is torn in the meniscus, it may wedge in the joint, locking the knee in a bent position. Trying to straighten the knee can be very painful.
  • Pain with motion. When twisting, squatting, or impact on the knee joint causes pain, this can be a sign that the injured meniscus is being pinched. Rest may improve the pain, but because meniscus tissue does not heal easily, pain will return with activity until the damage is medically treated.

If you experience these symptoms, consult an orthopedic knee specialist. Generally, arthroscopic surgery is the only way to repair meniscus tears. In cases where there is only a tiny tear in the outer edge of the meniscus, the peripheral blood supply in the joint may heal the tear with a period of immobilization, but this is the rare exception to the rule. There are currently no medications, braces, or physical therapy treatments that can heal these tears. Without treatment, a tear may worsen over time, and hasten the development of osteoarthritis in the injured knee.

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