The meniscus is a layer of thick, fibrous cartilage that sits on the top of your shin bone, within the knee joint. It, like the bones of the knee, has two halves - the lateral meniscus on the outside of the knee, and the medial meniscus on the inside of the knee. The function of both halves of the meniscus is to act as a cushion between the two large bones of the knee - the tibia (shin bone) and femur (thigh bone).
Meniscus injuries occur when the two bones are jammed hard together, then twisted. If you picture a netballer landing on one foot, then pivoting to pass the ball; or a footballer making a 90-degree turn at high speed, then you are close to imagining how meniscus tears happen.
It's not just athletes who tear their meniscus, though, it is one of the most common internal joint pathologies that come into my clinics. As is so often the case with very common injuries, there are a lot of urban myths about meniscus injuries. Some myths are partially correct, but most of them are outright wrong.
In this blog, I am going to go through some of the most common meniscus myths that I have heard and debunk them. If you have a meniscus injury, or if you know someone who has a meniscus injury, hopefully, you will find your question answered below - if not, feel free to post your questions in the comments section, and I'll get back to you.
Myth #1: "a torn meniscus makes the knee unusable"
Mostly untrue. The meniscus is only there to provide cushioning - it serves no mechanical purpose, so you don't lose any strength or movement if it is injured.
In severe meniscal tears, however, parts of the meniscus can break-free of the main body. A free section of a torn meniscus will move through the joint space as the knee moves and can become lodged in the joint. If this happens, the knee will buckle and give way. This buckling will continue happening until the free section of the meniscus is removed, but it is temporary, only lasting a few seconds each time.
Myth #2: "A torn meniscus is a 10/10 pain."
Completely untrue. The meniscus doesn't have any nerves, so the tear itself in painless. The phenomenon mentioned above, about a free section of the meniscus, can be moderately and temporarily painful, but certainly not 10/10 pain.
If the meniscus is very seriously damaged, and a part of the knee femur (thigh bone) is grinding a section of the tibia (shin bone), then that will be moderately painful also, but not 10/10 pain, and not constant pain.
Myth #3: "A torn meniscus will fix itself."
Sometimes true. A meniscus will repair itself it is mild to moderate damage, if you rest it, and if you are lucky. You can increase your luck by increasing circulation and blood supply to the knee with therapies like acupuncture, PRP, or heat therapy.
I am happy to treat people with mild or moderate meniscal tears to increase blood flow to the knee and promote self-healing, but I require that they speak with a surgeon before undergoing treatment with me, and if there is no improvement after two weeks, that they engage the surgeon. In some cases of moderate tears, and in all cases of severe tears, surgery will be required.
Myth #4: "You're guaranteed to get arthritis after a meniscus surgery."
Sometimes true. The most common meniscus surgery is a meniscal trim - the surgeon removes part of the meniscus, leaving a clean, albeit smaller meniscus behind. If so much of the meniscus is taken that it can no longer provide cushioning for the joint, then arthritis will probably occur later in life. However, it is important to remember that that section of the meniscus was already detached and not providing adequate cushioning for the joint, so arthritis was already a risk.
Myth #5: "The meniscus surgery rehab can take months or years to get through."
Completely untrue. There are many different methods of meniscus surgery; some are very invasive, and some much less invasive - I had a patient last year, who had a meniscal trim done as a day procedure with only a local anaesthetic! Even the most invasive meniscal trims, though, will take less time to recover than any other knee surgery. At most, 6-12 weeks would be a conservative estimate.
For more information on meniscus injuries, email me directly via the contact page. For specific information on an injury you have, or for treatment, contact one of my clinics directly. You can find that information here.
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Dr Mitch Clark