The agility of a professional basketball player is incredible to watch. Their crossovers confuse opponents who can’t tell if they’re going left or right. They swerve, sprint, jump, and dunk as if they have no bones. However, those seemingly effortless twists and turns can come with a price if one wrong move is made.

Specifically, these types of movements can lead to a torn meniscus . While some athletes — including those who play contact sports — are especially at risk for meniscus tears, this injury is one of the most common knee injuries. And anyone can suffer from them, regardless of age or activity.

You may still be able to stand and walk after the initial injury with only a bit of pain depending on the severity of the tear. That can make you think a meniscus tear is a minor injury. Treatment can wait and you can play through the pain, right? Not necessarily.

Left untreated, a meniscus tear can limit your daily life and ability to participate in exercise and sports. In serious cases, it can develop into long-term knee problems, like arthritis. In addition moving around with a torn meniscus could pull fragments of the cartilage into the joint causing larger knee issues which could requiring more significant surgery in the future.

Your Knee 101: What’s A Meniscus Tear?

Formed by three bones, the knee joint is typically a tough, strong joint. But it is not necessarily the most flexible when it comes to rotating in certain directions. During some activities — especially contact sports — the force and degree of twisting your knee can tear some of the wedge-shaped cartilage that provides cushioning between your thigh bone and shinbone. This cartilage is your meniscus. Each of your knees has two meniscus wedges. 

Meniscus tears are common among athletes, especially those who play sports that require a lot of squatting, twisting, and changing positions.

You will feel a pop when your meniscus is torn.

Afterward, you may experience:

  • Pain in the knee joint that comes and goes and gets worse when putting pressure on the joint
  • Swelling and stiffness
  • The feeling that your knee is giving way, locking, or catching when you bend it

If not treated, part of the meniscus may come loose and slip into the joint. You may need surgery to restore full knee function. Untreated meniscus tears can increase in size and lead to complications, such as arthritis.

Can A Meniscus Tear Heal On Its Own?

Endurance is an important part of sports. For some athletes, playing through a little pain is a badge of honor. In the case of meniscus tears, some people think the injury will heal over time on its own. But the truth is that there are different types of meniscus tears — and some tears won’t heal without treatment.

If your tear is on the outer one-third of the meniscus, it may heal on its own or be repaired surgically. This is because this area has rich blood supply and blood cells can regenerate meniscus tissue — or help it heal after surgical repair.

But if the tear is in the inner two-thirds, which lack blood flow, the tear cannot be repaired and may need to be trimmed or removed surgically. 

How Are Meniscus Tears Treated?

The first step in treating a torn meniscus is getting the injury examined by a physician who specializes in orthopedics. During the exam, they may check the tenderness of your knee joint and move your leg to get a measure of your knee’s range of motion. They may also order imaging test, such as an MRI or X-ray, to determine the exact location and severity of the tear.

The best course of treatment will be determined based on the location, degree, and type of tear, as well as your age and activity level.

Non-surgical treatment for tears that can heal on their own may include:

  • Physical therapy 
  • RICE: Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation
  • Anti-inflammatory medications

For more severe tears, surgery is typically the best course of treatment. The goal of surgery is to preserve the meniscus by repairing or removing the torn part. The procedure is typically done arthroscopically, meaning a small camera is inserted into a tiny incision in the knee to guide the surgeon in repairing or removing the tear using small instruments inserted into another tiny incision.

After surgery, you may need to participate in physical therapy to strengthen your knee, regain your range of motion, and get back to your activity.

Don’t let your knee pain force you to give up your favorite sport or activity. The providers at Penn’s Sports Medicine Program have unmatched expertise in treating meniscus tears and other knee injuries.

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