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Meniscus Tears

What Is a Meniscus?

The meniscus is a C-shaped disc of in the knee. It is a shock absorber between the upper and lower bones of the leg. It also keeps the knee stable. 

What Is a Meniscus Tear?

A meniscus (pronounced: meh-NISS-kiss) tear happens when the meniscus is torn, either part of the way or all the way through.

How Do Meniscus Tears Happen?

In teens, a meniscus tear usually happens when the knee twists while bearing weight — for example, when landing from a jump or making a sudden change in direction. It can also happen when someone falls or gets hit in the knee. Meniscus tears often happen along with other knee injuries such as ligament tears.

In older adults, the meniscus is worn down and less flexible. It can tear easily, even with regular, everyday activity.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear?

Symptoms of a meniscus tear vary and can include:

  • knee pain, swelling, and/or stiffness
  • trouble bearing weight on the injured knee
  • knee “locking” or “popping”
  • “giving way” (or sudden collapsing) of the knee

Some people have no symptoms and don’t realize they have a torn meniscus.

How Is a Meniscus Tear Diagnosed?

To diagnose a meniscus tear, doctors ask about the injury and do an exam. During the exam, the doctor presses on the knee and legs and moves them in certain ways. These tests can sometimes show if the meniscus is torn.

The doctor also might order imaging tests like:

  • X-rays to check for injuries to the bones
  • an MRI to check the extent of the tear and to see if the knee has other injuries

How Is a Meniscus Tear Treated?

At first, the doctor will recommend ways to control any pain and let the meniscus tear heal. These treatments may include:

  • resting the knee
  • using crutches
  • wearing a brace
  • wrapping ice in a towel and putting it on the knee for 15 minutes a few times a day
  • propping up the leg when sitting down
  • special exercises
  • anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen
  • physical therapy (PT)

Some meniscus tears heal without any other treatments. Others may need surgery.

If a person needs surgery, surgeons usually do arthroscopic surgery. They make small incisions and put a tiny camera and small tools into the knee. They use the camera to see while they repair the torn meniscus with the tools.

Can I Prevent a Meniscus Tear?

There isn’t something specific that can prevent a meniscal tear. But these tips can lower your chances of a meniscus tear and other sports injuries:

  • Get regular exercise, including strength training for your leg muscles. Strong leg muscles help stabilize and protect the knee.
  • Always warm up and stretch properly before playing sports.
  • Give your muscles plenty of time to rest and recover between activities.
  • Get the right footwear for your sport, and keep shoes, boots, or skates laced up tight while you play.
  • Learn and use the proper techniques for your sport.

What Else Should I Know?

If you have a meniscus tear, follow your doctor’s instructions. Call your doctor if:

  • The pain and/or swelling get worse.
  • Your knee locks or gives out.
  • You have numbness or tingling in your leg, foot, or toes.

To give your knee time to heal, be sure to stay out of sports for as long as your doctor recommends.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: April 2022