What is the meniscus?
The knee joint is where the tibia and the femur meet, along with the patella, or kneecap. There are tendons, ligaments, and cartilage that work together to help people move. Sitting on the top of each tibia are the menisci. These are 2 horseshoe-shaped pieces of cartilage that face each other. The meniscus is crucial for shock absorption, especially from downward forces. Without the meniscus, the knee would lose stability and not operate as expected.
Fear the tear
The symptoms will range from person to person. In terms of a physical collision, some persons may feel a popping sensation. More common symptoms include pain, swelling, and joint stiffness. The knee can feel locked in place and cause pain when bending or twisting. And there are cases, like in a degenerated meniscus, with little to no pain and swelling.
Can a torn meniscus heal on its own?
There are some cases where this is possible. The meniscus has good circulation on the outer surface, especially in younger persons. So minor tears on the outer curve have been known to heal, particularly in teens. The inner part of the meniscus, however, has little to no circulation. However, any tear on the inner part is unlikely to heal naturally. A full horizontal tear or degenerative tear, due to wear and tear, will need surgery. And a bucket handle tear, where the cartilage is loose and flapping, will only respond to surgery. In short, the answer depends on the type of tear and the extent of the symptoms.
What about physical therapy?
There are cases where physical therapy can significantly reduce pain. Depending on factors like age, physical activity, and general health, several months of physical therapy can provide excellent results. Younger persons, particularly athletes, will need surgery to resume normal activities as soon as possible. So physical therapy alone may not be an option.
Repairing your torn meniscus
A surgeon will perform arthroscopic meniscal repair surgery, a minimally invasive procedure. The technique will depend on the type of meniscus damage. To get started, the doctor will make 2 or more small incisions around the knee. A high-powered micro camera, an arthroscope, gets inserted into the knee. Additional tools then go through the other incisions. For inner tears that are flaps, the surgeon will cut away the cartilage and smooth the inner edges. Other tears will benefit from simple stitches to help with healing.
The road to recovery
Meniscal repair surgery is an outpatient procedure, meaning the patient can leave the same day. This is particularly true if performed in an ambulatory surgical center (ASC). Recovery can take anywhere from 3-6 months with physical therapy. Meniscal repair is known to have an 85% or higher success and satisfaction rate.
Take care of that tear
Meniscus tears can happen to anyone and at any age. In some cases, the meniscus can heal when paired with physical therapy. These are cases of longitudinal tears along the outer part of the cartilage. Some horizontal or inner tears can also gain significantly reduced pain with physical therapy. However, if the knee is not performing well with the tear, surgery is the best option. Speak with a healthcare provider to learn more about torn meniscus repair.