The menisci are two cartilage discs that sit between the tibia (shin bone) and the femur (thigh bone). The word menisci is the plural term for meniscus. The two menisci are the medial meniscus and the lateral meniscus. The medial meniscus is on the inner side of the knee while the lateral meniscus is on the outer side of the knee.
The menisci serve two important roles. First, they help make the tibia and the femur fit together better. Second, the menisci act as cushions to distribute the impact of weight bearing across the joint surface.
A normal meniscus in a young, healthy person is very firm with smooth edges. Damage to the meniscus in younger people is rare and is normally associated with a traumatic injury.
The menisci slowly degenerate as people age. Over time this can cause small tears to develop within the meniscus that can get caught during bending and straightening movements of the knee. This is a very common problem in people over the age of 40. Patients commonly complain of locking or catching in the knee when there is a meniscus tear. Often times, the knee also becomes swollen and stiff. The pain can start with or without a specific injury.
Common Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear
- Pain that is in one specific spot on the inner or outer side of the knee
- Pain when bending the knee, e.g, squatting
- Decreased range of motion
- Clicking/catching sensation in the knee
- Locking sensation in the knee
Treatment of Meniscus Tears
The symptoms from a meniscus tear occasionally go away with time and rehabilitation. In these cases surgery may not be necessary. In some situations a knee arthroscopy is required to remove the torn piece.
A meniscus tear can be compared to having a pebble in your shoe. If the pebble doesn’t prevent you from doing normal activities and is not too uncomfortable, it doesn’t necessarily need to be removed.
If surgery is indicated, a knee arthroscopy will be performed. This is an outpatient surgery, done under a general anesthesia. Following surgery, rehabilitation focuses on preventing and eliminating swelling, restoring full range of motion, normal gait (walking), and full strength.