What is a Medial Meniscus Tear?
In sports and orthopedics, a tear of a meniscus is a rupturing of one or more of the fibrocartilage strips in the knee called menisci. When doctors and patients refer to “torn cartilage” in the knee, they actually may be referring to an injury to a meniscus at the top of one of the tibiae. Menisci can be torn during innocuous activities such as walking or squatting. They can also be torn by traumatic force encountered in sports or other forms of physical exertion. The traumatic action is most often a twisting movement at the knee while the leg is bent. In older adults, the meniscus can be damaged following prolonged ‘wear and tear’ called a degenerative tear.
Tears can lead to pain and/or swelling of the knee joint. Especially acute injuries (typically in younger, more active patients) can lead to displaced tears which can cause mechanical symptoms such as clicking, catching, or locking during motion of the knee joint. The joint will be in pain when in use, but when there is no load, the pain goes away.
A tear of the medial meniscus can occur as part of the unhappy triad, together with a tear of the anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament.
Signs and Symptoms
The common signs and symptoms of a torn meniscus are knee pain and swelling. These are worse when the knee bears more weight (for example, when running). Another typical complaint is joint locking, when the affected person is unable to straighten the leg fully. This can be accompanied by a clicking feeling. Sometimes, a meniscal tear also causes a sensation that the
knee gives way.
A person with a torn meniscus can sometimes remember a specific activity during which the injury was sustained. A tear of the meniscus commonly follows a trauma which involves rotation of the knee while it was slightly bent. These maneuvers also exacerbate the pain after the injury; for example, getting out of a car is often reported as painful.
After noting symptoms, a physician can perform clinical tests to determine if the pain is caused by compression and impingement of a torn meniscus. The knee is examined for sw
elling. In meniscal tears, pressing on the joint line on the affected side typically produces tenderness. The McMurray test involves pressing on the joint line while stressing the meniscus (using flexion–extension movements and varus or valgus stress). Similar tests are the Steinmann test (with the patient sitting) and the Apley grind test (a grinding maneuver while the person lies prone and the knee is bent 90°). Bending the knee (into hyperflexion if tolerable), and especially squatting, is typically a painful maneuver if the meniscus is torn. The range of motion of the joint is often restricted.
The Cooper’s sign is present in over 92% of tears. It is a subjective symptom of pain in the affected knee when turning over in bed at night. Osteoarthritic pain is present with weightbearing, but the meniscal tear causes pain with a twisting motion of the knee as the meniscal fragment gets pinched, and the capsular attachment gets stretched causing the complaint of pain.
There are two menisci in the knee. They sit between the thigh bone femur and the shin bone tibia. While the ends of the thigh bone and the shin bone have a thin covering of soft hyali
ne cartilage, the menisci are made of tough fibrocartilage and conform to the surfaces of the bones they rest on. One meniscus rests on the medial tibial plateau; this is the medial meniscus. The other meniscus rests on the lateral tibial plateau; this is the lateral meniscus.
These menisci act to distribute body weight across the knee joint. Without the menisci, the weight of the body would be unevenly applied to the bones in the legs (the femur and tibia). This uneven weight distribution would cause the development of abnormal excessive forces leading to early damage of the knee joint. The menisci also contribute to the stability of the joint.
The menisci are nourished by small blood vessels but have a large area in the center with no direct blood supply (avascular). This presents a problem when there is an injury to the me
niscus, as the avascular areas tend not to heal. Without the essential nutrients supplied by blood vessels, healing cannot take place.
The two most common causes of a meniscal tear are traumatic injury (often seen in athletes) and degenerative processes, which are the most common tear seen in all ages of patients. Meniscal tears can occur in all age groups. Traumatic tears are most common in active people aged 10–45. Traumatic tears are usually radial or vertical in the meniscus and more likely to produce a moveable fragment that can catch in the knee and therefore require surgical treatment.
A meniscus can tear due to an internally or externally rotated knee in a flexed position, with the foot in a flexed position. It is not uncommon for a meniscal tear to occur along w
ith injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament ACL and the medial collateral ligament MCL — these three problems occurring together are known as the “unhappy triad,” which is seen in sports such as football when the player is hit on the outside of the knee. Individuals who experience a meniscal tear usually experience pain and swelling as their primary symptoms. Another common complaint is
Degenerative tears are most common in people from age 40 upward but can be found at any age, especially with obesity. Degenerative meniscal tears are thought to occur as part of the aging process when the collagen fibers within the meniscus start to break down and lend less support to the structure of the meniscus. Degenerative tears are usually horizontal, producing both an upper and a lower segment of the meniscus. These segments do not usually move out of place and are therefore less likely to produce mechanical symptoms of catching or locking. joint locking, or the inability to completely straighten the joint. This is due to a piece of the torn cartilage preventing the normal functioning of the knee joint.