Lately it seems like everyone’s complaining about knee pain. One common knee injury is a meniscal tear. The meniscus is made up of two pieces of cartilage that act as a shock absorber as we take steps.
There are two types of meniscal tears. One tends to occur in younger people and is caused by a twisting type of injury from sports or heavy lifting. The other is a degenerative type that develops with age and wear and tear.
Symptoms of a torn meniscus include pain, swelling and clicking, popping, locking, or a knee that gets stuck in one position, says Dr. Jennifer Connor, an orthopedic surgeon at Orthopaedic and Rehabilitation Centers and affiliated with Swedish Covenant Hospital in Chicago. “With a locked knee, once you free it up it usually feels better,” she says. “Pay attention to your symptoms. When does it happen? What activities make it worse? If you go to a doctor, he or she will want to know.”
If you have an injury that hurts for a day and then gets better, you don’t need further treatment. But if the pain doesn’t resolve or continues to get worse, see a specialist. If you can’t recall a specific injury but your discomfort comes and goes, pay attention to when it hurts, Dr. Connor says. Try ibuprofen and lay off impact activities such as running. If the pain doesn’t resolve in a few weeks, seek out a specialist.
“Pay attention to your symptoms. When does it happen? What activities make it worse? If you go to a doctor, he or she will want to know.”
For more degenerative types of problems – I’m talking about us, professional hypochondriacs — conservative treatment includes physical therapy and corticosteroid injections. People with degenerative problems often feel better with these measures, but unfortunately the pain may come back, says Dr. Connor. Knee pain can also be caused by early arthritic changes, so sometimes it can be difficult to tell the difference between the two.
If conservative treatment doesn’t work, it may be time for arthroscopic surgery. Treatment of a meniscal tear depends on where it’s located. Tears that occur in the outer portion of the meniscus are more amenable to repair because they have a better blood supply and can heal. Unfortunately, the vast majority occur in an area with poor blood supply.
If the tear can be repaired, you’ll need to avoid bearing weight for 4 to 6 weeks. If a tear can’t be repaired and doctors just remove the part that’s torn, you can generally start walking the same day. You may be on crutches for a week to 10 days.
To protect your joints (and your meniscus):
- Maintain an appropriate weight because too much weight adds stress to joints
- Do lower impact aerobic exercise, such as biking, swimming or walking.
- Do strengthening exercises (keep muscles around the knee strong because it takes pressure off the joint)
- Maintain a healthy diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D
- Don’t smoke
How about glucosamine chondroitin? No scientific studies have shown it’s effective, says Dr. Connor. “It’s OK to try for 6 to 8 weeks, but if you don’t notice a difference it might not be worth your time and expense.”