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THE knee is made up of three bones: the thighbone (femur), the shinbone (tibia), and the kneecap (patella), as well as the soft tissue that connects them. Between your femur and your tibia are two C-shaped discs of cartilage. They act as shock absorbers for the bones and help keep your knee stable. These C-shaped discs are your menisci (plural of meniscus). They can be torn, particularly if the knee twists suddenly while it is bent.
Viewed from the front or back, the meniscus is wedge shaped. This shape helps keep the rounded surface of your femur from sliding off the flat top of your tibia. The outer edges of this wedge receive a good supply of blood, and tears in this part of the meniscus heal well on their own. But the inner part of the meniscus has no direct blood supply to help it heal. Tears in this area might need surgery.
A torn meniscus is a common sports injury, particularly in contact sports like football and hockey. Meniscus tears can range from minor to severe, depending on the extent of the damage, and they can make it difficult for the knee to function properly.
Older people often get meniscus tears because their menisci become brittle and less flexible with age. But for teens, meniscus tears usually happen because of an injury — often after twisting or turning the knee while it is bent and the foot is firmly planted. This might happen when:
Meniscus tears often happen along with other knee injuries such as ligament tears.
The symptoms of a torn meniscus will vary depending on the severity of the tear. Someone who gets a minor tear may only have slight pain and swelling that goes away after 2 or 3 weeks.
Moderate to severe tears also might cause these symptoms:
If you see a doctor about pain in your knee, he or she will ask how you injured it and what it feels like. The doc will also review your medical history to see if the pain might be caused by something other than a torn meniscus.
The doctor will examine your knee to see if you have any tenderness in the area where your meniscus sits. To see if pain is caused by a meniscus tear, a doctor might ask you to squat. The doctor might also bend, straighten, and rotate your knee.
The doctor also might order an X-ray to check for other conditions that can cause knee pain or a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to get a better look at the soft tissue of your knee. X-rays and MRIs are the best way to "look" inside the knee without doing surgery.
Minor tears usually don't need surgery, especially if they are on the outer part of the meniscus where there is a good supply of blood. These tears should heal on their own fairly quickly. Treatment can include the following:
For severe tears or tears that don't respond to other forms of treatment, a doctor may have to perform surgery. Usually, this will be in the form of arthroscopic surgery, where a small camera is inserted into the knee to help surgeons see what they're doing without having to open the knee up.
Sometimes a surgeon can repair a torn meniscus. Other times, the surgeon will trim away the torn piece of the meniscus to stop it from interfering with the way the knee works. If you get surgery, the doctor may put your knee in a brace afterwards. This keeps the knee from moving around it while it heals. You might need to use crutches for a while.
As with any sports injury, the key to healing meniscus tears — no matter how minor — is not to get back into play too quickly. Your body (and performance) will be stronger if you wait until your doctor gives you the OK to get back in the game.
Because they generally happen without any warning, meniscus tears can be hard to prevent. You can reduce your risk, though, by taking these precautions:
If your child has been diagnosed, you probably have lots of questions. We can help. If you would like to schedule an appointment, refer a patient or speak to our staff, please call our offices at 682-885-4405.