If you frequently visit a gym, lift weights, or play team sports like football or basketball, chances are you have suffered an injury at some point. Often injuries are a result of overuse and get better with rest. There are some injuries, however, that need careful treatment to prevent long-lasting damage. One such injury is a meniscus tear.
This guide will help you learn more about meniscus tears and how they are treated at home and by professionals.
What is your meniscus?
Your meniscus is like a shock-absorber. It is a C-shaped piece of cartilage in your knee that acts as a cushion between your thighbone and shinbone (or femur and tibia if you want to be technical!). You have two in each knee joint.
What causes a meniscus tear?
Your meniscus can tear during any activity that forces you to rotate or twist your knee quickly. It can also occur when you have to change direction quickly when running. Players of the following sports may be particularly prone to this kind of injury:
However, it is not just sport that can cause a meniscus injury. Simply getting up from a squatting position, stepping out of the shower awkwardly, or picking up something heavy could cause your meniscus to tear.
Your joints degenerate (get thinner and weaker) as you age, so older people, especially those who already suffer from osteoarthritis, may be more prone to a torn meniscus.
Youngsters are not immune, either! More children than ever are now participating in team sports, and the instance of younger athletes suffering from meniscus tears has increased in line with the increase in numbers.
So how can you tell if you have damaged your meniscus as opposed to another type of knee injury? The following symptoms indicate whether you have torn your meniscus:
- A noticeable popping sensation at the moment of injury
- Difficulty straightening your knee
- The feeling of your knee is locked or stuck
- Painful to touch
- Noticeable swelling
- Feeling that your knee is giving way
When the injury first happens, you may not be in a great deal of pain, but you are likely to be in a considerable amount of pain once the inflammation sets in.
How a doctor may diagnose your knee injury
To be confident that your injury is related to your meniscus, you should make an appointment to see your doctor. They can then rule out any other potential causes for your pain. You may have the following:
- An X-ray. You can't see a meniscus tear on an X-ray, but it will rule out other causes of your pain.
- An MRI scan. An MRI takes pictures of your cartilage and ligaments and will be able to diagnose whether or not you have a tear.
- The McMurray test. This test involves bending, straightening, and rotating your knee. If there is a tear, you may hear a pop during this procedure, indicating a meniscus tear.
- Arthroscopy. In extreme cases or when the cause of pain isn't entirely clear, your doctor may refer you for an arthroscopy. This procedure involves a fiber-optic device being inserted into your knee through a small incision. It has a light and a camera which enables the doctors to assess the problem. If necessary, they can then perform surgery through the incision to repair the issue.
Meniscus tear pain relief
When you are suffering from a meniscus tear, your first thoughts might be, "what can I do to get rid of the pain?".
Over-the-counter NSAID's such as ibuprofen and aspirin can be taken to reduce pain and swelling.
The RICE method is also a fail-safe way to alleviate pain.
- Rest (avoid any activity that may aggravate your pain. Use crutches if necessary to avoid bearing any weight on your knee).
- Ice (apply an ice-pack every 3-4 hours for about 30 mins)
- Compression (wrap in an elastic bandage to help reduce inflammation)
- Elevate (keep your leg elevated whenever possible to reduce swelling and inflammation).
There are also a wide range of knee pain relief supplies and equipment used by both professionals and individuals at home. If you seek out a physical rehab specialist, they may use post-surgery treatments such as hot and cold therapy or electrotherapy.
Surgery for a meniscus tear is usually the last resort and often the choice only if the problem is persistent and chronic.
Embarking on a rehabilitation regime of gentle exercises and stretches recommended by a physical therapist is the most realistic course of action for most people suffering from this injury.
Meniscus tear exercises
The following exercises may help your recovery:
- Mini-squats. Bend your knees and lower your buttocks to the ground. Stop and hold the position at around 15 degrees.
- Straight leg raise. Lie on your back with one leg bent. Lift your other leg until it is about 45 degrees from the floor, keeping it straight at all times.
- Standing heel raises. With feet hip-width apart, slowly lift your heels off the floor as far as is comfortable. Hold briefly and then slowly lower your heels to the floor.
- Leg extensions. Sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Lift your right leg out in front of you until it is straight. Repeat on the other leg.
- Other exercises to try are hamstrings curls, prone hang, and heel digs.
(Repeat each exercise for two sets of 10 on each leg)
How long does a torn meniscus take to heal?
At a conservative estimate, a meniscus tear can take between 6-8 weeks to heal as long as you are careful by resting and undertaking gentle exercises like those set out above.
If the severity of your injury results in surgery, it may take 4-8 weeks after surgery before you start to recover normal movement and anywhere from 3-6 months for a full recovery.
If you play a lot of sport, it may be difficult to avoid injury altogether, but there are steps you can take to lessen the likelihood of tearing your meniscus.
- Don't ignore knee-pain of any kind. Exercising on a small tear will make it worse.
- Stretch every time you exercise. No matter what form of exercise you undertake, the importance of stretching cannot be underestimated.
- Strengthen the muscles that support the knee. By strengthening your thigh muscles and your hips and buttocks, you are giving your knee the stability that it needs to avoid injury.
- Make sure that you have rest days. Building rest days into your exercise regime is vital to helping your muscles recover and preventing overuse.