Meniscus tears occur frequently. They occur in people with knee pain and yes, in those who do not have knee pain. Meniscus tears are a common cause of knee pain. We will discuss this in more detail, but tears of the meniscus can vary by location, type, size and the amount of pain they produce. The most common location for a meniscus tear is the posterior horn of the medial meniscus.
The meniscus is a C-shaped cartilage disk that is found in the knee. We have two menisci in either knee. We have the medial meniscus on the inner side of the knee and the lateral meniscus on the outer side of the knee. See this post to learn more about meniscus function.
The menisci serve a critical function in the knee as a shock absorber or cushion. This helps to minimize the stress on another type of cartilage that we have in the knee which we call the articular cartilage. If you look at the image below you see the meniscus in light blue. As the femur above pushes down towards the tibia, the meniscus accepts a lot of the force. It deforms outward and dissipates a lot of the force from the femur before it contacts the tibia. This is how the meniscus protects the articular cartilage.
The articular cartilage coats the ends of our bones within a joint. If the articular cartilage wears away, arthritis will occur. By protecting the articular cartilage, the meniscus helps prevent the onset of arthritis. As you can see below, if the articular cartilage is subject to too much force or load due to a meniscus tear then the cartilage can start to degenerate.
Causes of Posterior Horn Meniscus Tears
People can develop tears of the meniscus because of trauma, or sports injuries. Believe it or not most meniscus tears do not occur due to injury in middle-aged individuals. A meniscus can tear simply because it wore out. Most of you will not recall any specific injury. Some of you might recall that you bent down to get something off the floor or from under the bed and felt a click or pop.
Either way, most posterior horn meniscus tears in adults are “complex” tears and did not occur because of an injury– they simply wore out. That is why many of us in the orthopedic community now view these as an age-appropriate change. We develop age-appropriate “tears” in other parts of our body too, not all of them cause pain and most do not require surgery.
By far, the most common location for a tear is in the back, and on the inner or medial side of the knee — that is the area we call the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. The image below shows the region of your knee where you may feel pain from a posterior horn tear.
The posterior horn is also the most common area for degenerative tears of the meniscus where the tissue simply wore out, and it is a very common cause of pain in runners.
Treatments for Meniscus Tears
As mentioned in my recent post, the majority of posterior horn tears are determined to be degenerative. These degenerative tears are usually managed without the need for surgery.
It may take 2-3 months for the pain to go away, but this is worth waiting for. People who have surgery on these complex of degenerative posterior horn tears are actually at higher risk of developing arthritis than those who are treated with surgery.
As with most forms of knee pain in a middle-aged adult, focusing on strength, balance and muscle mass will help most of you get through this episode of pain without needing surgery. This post talks about the importance of balance training and strengthening- it contains a few videos to guide you too.
Muscle mass.. or larger muscles are associated with longevity and better health. Yes, our muscles contribute to our overall well being by aiding in our metabolism and glucose control. The stronger your legs are, the less likely they are to bother you.
Many of you who have posterior horn tears, might also have some evidence of osteoarthritis. This is not a terminal diagnosis! Physical activity should not be avoided because there is very little chance that most exercises will make your tear or arthritis worse. You don’t want your risk of heart disease, stroke, and dementia to increase because you stopped exercising thinking that you are protecting the knee. This post goes into significant detail about managing a knee with arthritis, and a complex or degenerative meniscus tear.
The majority of you who have a degenerative meniscus tear will do very well without surgical management. Again, it may take 2-3 months. If it’s two weeks out from the onset of pain and you are told you should consider surgery, it is often in your best interest to wait. The body heals far more slowly than we think.
Many of you will see improvement in your pain with the use of a compression knee sleeve and a course of natural anti-inflammatories. Just because something is torn, doesn’t always mean that it needs to be “fixed”. Surgery for meniscus tears is not always necessary. Cold/ice compression can help when the pain is particularly bad. This is particularly true for a “degenerative” posterior horn medial meniscus tear.
On the other hand, “Flap tears”, “bucket-handle tears” and other larger tears of the meniscus are more than likely to lead to surgery because of the persistent pain and mechanical symptoms such as popping, locking and instability.
Posterior horn medial meniscus tears in children tend to lead to a recommendation to consider surgery since these tears are usually repairable. In addition, children have much more regenerative or healing potential. If a meniscus tear is repaired (sutured back together), then the risk of developing arthritis later in life drops significantly.
Generally speaking, the treatment options for meniscus tears include rest, physical therapy, activity modification and occasionally a surgery we refer to as an arthroscopy.
An arthroscopy involves placing a small fiber-optic camera into the knee through a 1/4 inch incision. The camera is used to visualize the meniscus and other structures within the knee. During an arthroscopy, we have the choice of either repairing the meniscus tear or removing the torn piece.
Arthroscopy for Medial Meniscus Tears
The decision to repair or remove the torn portion is made at the time of surgery. We need to see whether or not the meniscus is repairable based on its quality, location, and size. Preference is given to repair posterior horn medial meniscus tears, if possible, to help preserve the meniscus and minimize the risk of developing arthritis.
Additional Reading on Meniscal Tears:
- What is a Meniscus?
- Types of Meniscus Tears
- Why do meniscus tears hurt?
- Do all meniscus tears require surgery?
- Recovery from meniscus tear surgery.
Disclaimer: this information is for your education and should not be considered medical advice regarding diagnosis or treatment recommendations. Some links on this page may be affiliate links. Read the full disclaimer.