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Your Guide to Understanding Meniscus Tears

What is a Meniscus?

A meniscus is a crescent or “c”-shaped cartilage disk that’s found in the knee. There are actually two menisci per knee. One is on the inner side of the knee which is called the  medial meniscus and the other is on the outer side of the knee, called the lateral meniscus.


What is the Function of the Meniscus?

The menisci serves as a shock absorber, or cushion, to minimize the stress on another type of cartilage in the knee called the articular cartilage. The articular cartilage coats the ends of our bones within a joint. By protecting the articular cartilage, the meniscus helps prevent the onset of arthritis. The meniscus also serves to improve stability of the knee. The less meniscus you have, the more stress and instability to the knee.


What Causes Meniscus Tears?

Acute or traumatic meniscus tears occur as a result of an injury.  Degenerative meniscus tears occur as a result of wear and tear or attrition, and usually are not preceded by trauma.


Traumatic meniscus tears come in all shapes and sizes.

  • Radial tears are short tears that extend from the inner margin of the meniscus and head towards the periphery or outer part of the meniscus.

  • Horizontal cleavage tears are very common and literally cleave a big portion of the meniscus in half, so there are nearly two “c” shaped discs sitting on top of one another.

  • A bucket handle tear is the largest of all meniscus tears. The entire meniscus tears, and the entire c shaped disc flips over and sits in front of the knee.


Large unstable tears (radial tears, cleavage tears, and bucket handle tears) tend to remain bothersome, whereas degenerative tears typically do not produce significant ongoing discomfort.  Degenerative tears reveal frayed meniscal edges. The tissue simply wears out from years and years of use.


How Are Meniscus Tears be Treated?

Because there are a variety of meniscus tears, it’s important that you see an orthopedic doctor to determine if you will need surgery. The various types of meniscus tears will also determine whether or not the torn piece can be stitched or repaired, or whether the torn piece will simply need to be removed. The type of meniscus tear you have will also determine if you will have have persistent pain on an ongoing basis, or whether or not you can expect to feel better after a period of rest.


Will Physical Therapy Help My Torn Meniscus?

Yes! Working with a physical therapist will help you regain as much strength and flexibility in your knee as possible. Your rehab program probably will include physical therapy and home exercises. A coordinated program of physical therapy and home exercises can advance the healing in your knee and help you return to desired activities. Building strength and flexibility in your knee and legs may help prevent future degeneration in your knee.


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