What Is A Torn Meniscus?
It’s fairly clear that a torn meniscus is one of the most common causes of knee pain. How many times have you heard through the grapevine that a friend or colleague or neighbor down the street tore their meniscus during a skiing accident or a pick-up basketball game? Sure, it’s something to do with your knee, but does anyone actually know what this injury really entails?
WHAT IS A TORN MENISCUS?
Let’s break it down here with a quick lesson in anatomy:
- Each knee has two menisci – a medial meniscus and a lateral meniscus. They’re located between the thighbone and the shinbone and behind the kneecap. Essentially acting as gristle for the knee, each meniscus provides a cushion for the cartilage above and below it. While the medial meniscus sits on the inside portion of the knee, the lateral meniscus conversely sits on the outside part.
- Each meniscus is shaped like a semicircle, thicker on the periphery and thinner towards the center of the knee. Not only do the menisci cushion the cartilage, but they’re also a source of stability for the knees, attaching to the surrounding joint capsule and ligaments. The meniscus is therefore essential for the proper functioning of a healthy knee!
- Your menisci are made of collagen. This is the same substance that constitutes your bones, as well as fingernails. The type of collagen in the meniscus is just slightly different – softer and more elastic than that in your skeleton.
Collagen requires water and certain nutrients to work properly. As we age, our collagen’s ability to absorb enough water in the meniscus becomes limited. The result is a drier and less pliable meniscus in adults and older individuals. Just think of the meniscus as a sort of sponge padding the joint. If a sponge is wet, it’s more difficult to tear. But if a sponge is dry, you can rip it in half quite easily. As we age and the meniscus dries out, it’s similarly much easier to tear. Hence, a torn meniscus is a typical and even likely reason for any adults to be experiencing knee pain.
HOW DOES SOMEONE TEAR THEIR MENISCUS?
We usually think of injuries to the knee as occurring through sports or car accidents. And there’s no denying that a meniscus is often torn with a large impact and/or twist to the knee. Consider a football tackle; here the knee is put under tremendous stress. However, major trauma is not always necessary to hurt or tear the meniscus. Often times, people will incur the injury simply bending the wrong way or going for a light jog with the dog!
But when the meniscus tears, more than likely, it’s going to hurt. There are a number of ways that a meniscus can tear and each pattern has a different clinical picture. Of course, some tears hurt more than others, and certain types may cause instability, while others do not. And sometimes a meniscal tear doesn’t even hurt at all. In fact, there are plenty of people walking around with a torn meniscus who don’t even know they have one!
If this injury ever happens to you, the pattern and type of tear will dictate the treatment selected by your orthopedic specialist.
- Some meniscal tears will cause the knee to “lock up” – the knee will actually get stuck a bit and one has to work it out.
- Other meniscal tears are considered to be flap tears and will catch and pull with every step and cause significant pain.
- Still others will simply cause a little bit of swelling and a nagging pain that keeps one from going about his or her day-to-day activities.
- The tears that are due to degeneration of the meniscus are typically only mildly or moderately symptomatic.
If a meniscal tear keeps you from going for a normal 3-mile walk, it’s putting your health in jeopardy and it should be addressed. You might be reading this and wondering about a dull, long-term pain you’ve had in your own knee. Now that you know what a torn meniscus really is, you’re better off safe than sorry – It could be time to schedule a consultation with your doctor or orthopedic specialist!