Meniscus Tear Symptoms and Treatment | PreferredMD
Orthopedic Surgery

Meniscus Tear Symptoms and Treatment

Condition • By Biraj Patel

The human knee, a remarkable joint that bears the weight of our world, often faces wear and tear, leading to various orthopedic issues. One of the most common predicaments encountered is a meniscus tear. So, let’s delve into the world of meniscus tears, exploring symptoms, causes, risk factors, prevention, and the best course of treatment.

What is a meniscus tear?

The meniscus is a wedge-shaped, rubbery cartilage in your knee that acts as a cushion and stabilizer. A meniscus tear occurs when this cartilage is damaged due to injury or degeneration.

Meniscus tear symptoms, causes, and prevention

The symptoms of meniscus tear include:

  • Pain: A persistent, dull ache in the knee, often exacerbated by twisting or squatting.
  • Swelling: The knee may puff up within 24 hours of the injury.
  • Limited range of motion: Difficulty fully extending or bending the knee.

Meniscus tears can result from various scenarios, including sports injuries, particularly when abrupt pivoting or twisting movements occur. Degenerative tears, on the other hand, are more common in older individuals as the meniscus weakens with age. 

Meniscus tears are not solely dependent on age or physical activity. Factors like obesity, genetics, and previous knee injuries can increase the risk. Secondary prevention techniques include maintaining a healthy weight and practicing exercises that strengthen the knee muscles.

Types of meniscus tears

The type and severity of the meniscus tear play a significant role in determining the most appropriate treatment approach. While some tears may respond well to conservative measures like rest and physical therapy, others, especially severe or displaced tears like bucket handle tears, often require surgical repair to restore knee function and prevent further damage. Consulting with an orthopedic doctor is crucial for an accurate diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.

Radial meniscus tear

A radial tear occurs when a tear extends from the outer edge of the meniscus towards the center. Radial tears are more common in traumatic injuries and may be more likely to heal naturally, especially if they are located in the outer portion of the meniscus. However, the need for surgery will depend on the specific characteristics of the tear and the patient's symptoms.

Horizontal meniscus tear

A horizontal meniscus tear is a tear that occurs parallel to the surface of the meniscus. These tears are typically associated with degenerative changes in the meniscus, where the cartilage becomes weakened and more prone to damage. Horizontal tears can be more challenging to treat, as they may not have the same healing potential as other types of tears. Surgical intervention may be necessary, especially if the tear causes symptoms or hampers knee function.

Bucket handle meniscus tear

A bucket handle tear is a severe and distinctive type of meniscus tear. In this case, a portion of the meniscus displaces into the center of the knee joint, resembling the handle of a bucket. This type of tear often causes the knee to lock, making it difficult to fully extend or bend the leg. Bucket handle tears are typically more common in younger individuals and are often treated surgically to reposition and repair the displaced meniscus.

Medial meniscus tear

The medial meniscus is the cartilage located on the inner side of the knee joint, between the femur (thigh bone) and tibia (shin bone). A medial meniscus tear is a tear that occurs in this specific area. These tears can vary in severity and can be either traumatic, resulting from a sudden injury, or degenerative, linked to wear and tear over time. Symptoms typically include pain, swelling, and limited range of motion on the inner side of the knee.

Lateral meniscus tear

The lateral meniscus is the cartilage located on the outer side of the knee joint, opposite the medial meniscus. A lateral meniscus tear is a tear that occurs in this region. Similar to medial meniscus tears, lateral meniscus tears can be caused by trauma or degeneration and exhibit symptoms like pain, swelling, and difficulty moving the knee on the outer side.

Diagnosing a torn meniscus

Diagnosing a meniscus tear typically involves a combination of medical history assessment, physical examination, and imaging studies. 

The process begins with the healthcare provider asking about your medical history. They will inquire about the circumstances surrounding the knee injury, any previous knee issues, and any symptoms you are experiencing. This information helps in understanding the context of the injury.

The healthcare provider will then conduct a thorough physical examination of the knee. They will look for signs of swelling, tenderness, and any noticeable changes in the knee's shape or structure. Specific tests, such as the McMurray test and Apley's compression test, are often performed to assess the integrity of the meniscus.

Imaging studies

Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI): This is the most common and accurate method for diagnosing meniscus tears. An MRI provides detailed images of the knee's internal structures, including the menisci, allowing the physician to identify the location, type, and severity of the tear.

X-rays are primarily used to rule out other knee conditions, such as fractures or arthritis. While they can't directly visualize the meniscus, they are a valuable part of the diagnostic process.

Ultrasound: In some cases, ultrasound may be used to evaluate the meniscus, especially when an MRI is not readily available. It's less detailed than an MRI, but can still provide valuable information.

Arthroscopy (in some cases): In situations where the diagnosis is unclear, or when surgery is necessary to treat the tear, an arthroscopic procedure may be performed. Arthroscopy involves inserting a tiny camera into the knee joint to directly visualize the meniscus and any other potential issues. It also allows the surgeon to simultaneously treat the tear if needed.

Once the diagnosis is confirmed, the healthcare provider can then determine the appropriate course of treatment, which may involve conservative measures, surgical intervention, or a combination of both, depending on the type and severity of the tear.

Meniscus tear treatment 

Meniscus tears can be treated through various approaches, depending on the type, location, and severity of the tear, as well as the patient's age, activity level, and overall health. 

Conservative treatment

  • Rest: Avoiding activities that worsen symptoms and giving the meniscus time to heal is often the first step in treatment.
  • Ice: Applying ice to the affected knee can help reduce pain and swelling.
  • Compression: Using a bandage or knee brace can provide support and help control swelling.
  • Elevation: Keeping the leg elevated can reduce swelling.

Physical therapy

A physical therapist can design a specific exercise program to strengthen the muscles around the knee, improve joint stability, and enhance flexibility. Physical therapy can be particularly beneficial for minor tears and in the post-surgical recovery phase.


Over-the-counter non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like ibuprofen or prescription pain medications may be recommended to manage pain and inflammation.


Corticosteroid injections can provide temporary relief from pain and inflammation, especially in cases of significant discomfort.

Hyaluronic acid injections can help improve joint lubrication and reduce pain. They are sometimes used in osteoarthritis-related meniscus tears.

Meniscus tear surgery and surgical interventions

Arthroscopic surgery is a minimally invasive surgical procedure that involves the removal of the torn part of the meniscus or, when possible, repairing it using sutures. Arthroscopy is commonly employed for many types of meniscus tears.

In cases of extensive meniscus loss, a meniscus transplant might be considered. This involves replacing the damaged meniscus with a donor meniscus.

In cases where the meniscus tear is too extensive to repair, a partial or total meniscectomy may be performed, which involves removing the damaged meniscus.

Post-surgery, patients undergo a period of recovery and rehabilitation. Physical therapy plays a critical role in regaining strength, flexibility, and function in the knee.

Can a meniscus tear heal on its own?

The capacity of a meniscus tear to heal on its own depends on its type, location, and the patient's age. Radial tears, especially in the outer portion of the meniscus, may heal naturally with rest and physical therapy.

Can you still walk with a torn meniscus?

Yes, you can walk with a torn meniscus, but it may be painful and cause instability. However, it's essential to consult a medical professional for proper evaluation and guidance.

Discuss meniscus tear treatment with the best orthopedic surgeons on PreferredMD

A meniscus tear can be a painful and limiting condition, but timely diagnosis and appropriate treatment can lead to a successful recovery. The best course of action is to consult a healthcare professional who can guide you through the journey to regain your knee's strength and stability.

And if surgery is required, it's essential to find the best orthopedic surgeon for your case, and PreferredMD is here to help you do that. Our physician network comprises hand-selected specialists that have been thoroughly evaluated by their peers and patients. 

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