If you’re a sports fan, you’ve probably heard about athletes suffering from something called a torn meniscus. If you play sports yourself, you may find that a sudden tumble on the court or a twist of the knee causes pain, swelling, or stiffness.
Your meniscus (or menisci, plural) is the C-shaped piece of cartilage that provides cushioning between the bones of your thigh and shin. It provides important support and shock absorption, but it can sometimes tear after an accident, because of overuse, or just due to age.
Torn meniscus surgery is only recommended for injuries that are particularly severe or don’t respond to other, non-surgical treatments. Florida Medical Clinic orthopedic surgeon and sports medicine specialist Dr. Brian Domby has years of experience performing meniscus repairs on both athletes and non-athletes alike. In this blog, he lends his expertise to explain what patients can expect before, during, and after the procedure.
Meniscus Tears: Causes and Symptoms
Meniscus tears are common in athletes and people who participate in high-impact exercises, but they can also occur as a result of routine daily activities. As the bones and tissue surrounding the knee weaken with age, simple actions like squatting, kneeling, or lifting a heavy object can lead to a meniscus injury.
Most meniscus injuries happen suddenly after a single event, like twisting your knee. But they can also occur in patients with osteoarthritis. Common symptoms include:
- A “popping” noise during or immediately after a fall or impact
- Stiffness that gets worse over time
- Swelling that doesn’t go away
- Pain, especially when moving
- Trouble bending or straightening out the knee
- Difficulties sitting, kneeling, or squatting
If you normally have joint problems due to osteoarthritis, you may notice any of the above symptoms or pain suddenly getting much worse.
When to See a Doctor
Some very small meniscus tears can heal on their own with bed rest, but in most cases, you’ll need to see an orthopedic specialist.
You should visit a doctor if:
- Your knee feels unstable, like it might buckle or give way when you place weight on it
- Your knee feels “locked up” and won’t bend or straighten
- You experience pain or an ache in the joint that doesn’t go away after a few days
- You can’t do daily activities or exercise like you used to
Talking to a doctor right away can prevent damage from getting worse and causing more problems down the road.
How is a torn meniscus diagnosed?
There are a few different ways that an orthopedic surgeon may diagnose meniscus tears and make treatment recommendations.
First, your doctor will perform a physical examination. They will look at your knee, bend and straighten it, and listen for popping or clicking sounds. They may also order an x-ray or MRI. These imaging tests can show the bones and tissues around your knee and help your doctor find tears or other causes of knee pain.
Once the tear has been diagnosed, your doctor will discuss possible treatment options with you.
Non-Surgical Treatment Options
Dr. Domby always tries to treat his patients using conservative, non-surgical methods first when appropriate before suggesting torn meniscus surgery. These treatment options include things like:
- Taking over-the-counter (OTC) anti-inflammatory pain relievers
- Using ice packs to reduce pain and swelling
- Wearing a compression brace to stabilize the knee
- Taking a break from playing sports or exercising
- Attending physical therapy to strengthen the muscles around the knee
However, if the injury is severe enough or conservative treatments aren’t effective, surgery may be necessary.
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Types of Torn Meniscus Surgery
Torn meniscus surgery is usually performed at ambulatory surgery centers as an outpatient procedure, meaning you’ll be able to go home the same day.
Meniscus surgery is performed arthroscopically, which involves inserting a tiny camera into a small incision to view and work on the injury.
The procedure you receive may be a simple repair or a partial meniscectomy (“men-uh-sek-to-mee”).
- Meniscus repair. During a repair procedure, your surgeon uses stitches to fix the damage. This is performed if the meniscus tear occurs in the portion of the meniscus that has blood supply and potential to heal.
- Partial meniscectomy. Using arthroscopic techniques, your surgeon makes a small incision and trims off part of the torn meniscus. This is performed if the meniscus tear occurs in the avascular zone and does not have healing potential.
Your orthopedic surgeon will recommend a type of surgery based on your age, activity levels, and the severity of a tear.
Torn meniscus surgery is a safe procedure for people of all ages and athletic levels. However, like all surgeries, it does come with a few risks. These include a low risk of infection at the surgical site, incomplete pain relief (with arthritis especially), blood clots, and knee stiffness.
Patients who smoke are at an increased risk of complications.
Your exact recovery timeline will depend on your age, general health and activity levels, the type of surgery you received, and if you have any additional procedures performed at the same time.
After the procedure, you’ll be asked to attend physical therapy to normalize motion. Most people can return to regular activities after 4-6 weeks. Your surgeon might recommend you refrain from high-impact exercises and sports for longer, though (especially in the setting of a meniscus repair).
Your doctor will also recommend that you participate in physical therapy for several weeks or months to help strengthen the muscles around your knee and reduce the risk of future injury.
An Orthopedic Surgeon Can Help You Get Back on Your Feet
If a few days of rest doesn’t relieve your pain, it’s time to talk to a doctor. Many patients can make a full recovery and get back to their favorite sports, exercises, and outdoor activities if their tears are treated right away.
To learn more about your treatment options, schedule an appointment with sports medicine specialist Dr. Brian Domby at a Florida Medical Clinic location in Wiregrass, North Tampa, or Brandon. Virtual telemedicine appointments are also available.
About Brian C. Domby, MD
As an athlete and board-certified orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Brain Domby specializes in treating knee and shoulder injuries in people of all ages and fitness levels. In addition to treating Florida Medical Clinic patients, Dr. Domby is a team physician for the Tampa Bay Lightning, USA Women’s Hockey, and US Figure Skating.
Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to substitute professional medical advice. Every patient is different, so talk with your orthopedic doctor to learn what treatment options are best for you.