Whether you twisted your knee during a baseball game or just at home, a torn meniscus injury is no fun. This common injury can prohibit everyday use of your knee, cause pain, and keep you off your feet. An essential part of recovery is understanding the different types of meniscus tears and knowing how to heal a torn meniscus naturally if the meniscus repair doesn’t require surgery.
What is the Meniscus?
The meniscus is a c-shaped spongy cartilage between your tibia (lower leg bone) and your femur (thigh bone). You have two menisci on either side of your knee inside the joint (lateral meniscus and medial meniscus), and the patella (kneecap) sits in front of them. Each meniscus is a shock absorber for leg movements like walking, running, and jumping. Without them, your leg bones would rub together, and your knee joint would become unstable.
Injuring a meniscus is easy and can happen to anyone at any age. Since meniscus tears happen from acute trauma or degeneration of the meniscus over time, athletes who participate in contact sports and people over 30 are at a higher risk. A meniscus tear is one of the most common knee injuries, affecting almost 1 million people annually in America.
Usually, the meniscus is injured from twisting or pivoting the knee joint, sudden stops, kneeling, bending, or even lifting something heavy. A sports-related meniscus tear is usually part of a more significant knee injury.
Do I Have a Meniscus Tear?
Before you find out how to heal a torn meniscus naturally, you need to determine whether your knee pain is a meniscus injury. Signs of a meniscus tear include:
- A popping or clicking sound after performing an activity likely to create a tear, like a sharp pivot.
- Pain in the knee joint and surrounding tissue.
- Swelling in or around the knee joint.
- Catching or clicking feeling when using the knee.
- A sensation that your knee will give way during routine movements.
- Limited knee range-of-motion.
There may also be no symptoms of a meniscus tear after the initial injury. Your knee will feel fine and work as expected for a few days. Watch for signs of your knee getting stiffer and more swollen, and note when and if you start to feel pain.
The only way to diagnose a meniscus tear is to have your knee examined by a physician. Your doctor will take a medical history, especially about events that led to your injury, a list of your symptoms, and perform a physical examination to check for tenderness in the area. A McMurray test may also be administered to check specifically for a meniscus tear.
During a McMurray test, the doctor will manually bend your knee, then straighten and rotate the leg while putting tension on the suspected damaged meniscus. If you have a tear, this test will produce a reaction like pain or a clicking or clunking sensation in the knee joint.
You will likely have imaging tests done to ensure no additional damage, like osteoarthritis or an anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) tear (which often occurs with a meniscus tear in athletes), and to confirm the diagnosis. An X-ray is used to look at bones in the knee, and sometimes an MRI is used to visualize the soft tissue of the injury.
Can a Meniscus Tear Heal on Its Own?
When the meniscus is torn, it means the shock-absorbing cartilage has ripped. The type and location of the tear will determine the severity of the injury and the treatment options available. Treatment may also be based on the patient’s symptoms, occupation, activity level, health, and age.
Many injuries can heal independently if the affected area has a steady blood supply. Only the outer third of the meniscus has a rich enough blood supply to provide the necessary components to heal a meniscus tear naturally. This is called the “red zone,” and tears here may be able to heal without surgery. The remaining two-thirds of the meniscus is called the “white zone” because there is an inadequate blood supply, and tears here don’t usually heal on their own.
What’s Your Type?
There are six types of meniscus tears. Tear type, location, and severity are the three main factors determining whether your meniscus tear will benefit from surgery.
- 1. Radial: usually in the white zone. Radial tears are the most common type of meniscus tear and are not likely to heal independently without non-surgical or surgical interventions. Surgery is usually recommended to trim the portion of torn tissue.
- 2. Horizontal: any zone. This tear occurs across the meniscus. Although in the red zone, an outer edge horizontal tear may still benefit from surgery. Depending on the severity and location, a stable horizontal tear may heal without surgery. Horizontal tears (sometimes called “degenerative meniscus tears”) often occur as we age.
- 3. lap: any zone. Flap tears occur when a part of the meniscus is ripped off and gets stuck in the knee joint, inhibiting joint function. A flap tear is often why your knee feels like it is catching on something. If knee movement is affected, surgery is recommended.
- 4. Vertical (Longitudinal): any zone. These tears occur in the center of the meniscus and usually block normal knee function. A more extensive vertical tear is called a bucket-handle tear, often appearing in the red zone. However, these are the most severe tears and usually require surgical treatment to restore knee function. A bucket-handle tear will make the knee hard to bend or unable to bend at all and usually occurs from a twisting or pivoting movement.
- 5. Incomplete: any zone. These tears predominantly occur from wear and tear or degeneration starting around age 30. A stable incomplete tear can heal without surgical treatment.
- 6. Complex: any zone. A complex tear combines tear patterns, often a horizontal and radial tear. They can sometimes be too complex for surgery.
Meniscus tears with the highest potential for healing alone or with minimal non-invasive treatment are stable incomplete tears and small tears located in a red zone. In almost all circumstances, non-invasive therapies are used before surgery, except when the pain is severe, or the knee can’t function properly.
How to Heal a Torn Meniscus Naturally
Non-surgical treatments can heal some meniscus tears and help you retain the full use of your knee. These non-invasive methods included RICE, mobility aids, medication & nutrition, and physical therapy.
RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, elevation. An essential tool to speed recovery is resting the injured area. It is crucial to keep weight off the knee and to keep it either bent or straight, as determined by your doctor. Ice, compression, and elevation help reduce swelling and pain. Sometimes a knee brace will be prescribed.
To rest your knee, you may require mobility aids like a knee walker, crutches, or a cane. Remember, the menisci are shock absorbers, so keeping the knee from bearing weight while the tear heals is critical.
Medications are recommended to help alleviate symptoms and aid the healing process. NSAIDs (nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) like aspirin or ibuprofen are available without a prescription. If the pain is unbearable, your doctor may prescribe low-dose pain relievers. Additionally, your doctor may give you a corticosteroid shot in your knee to reduce pain and swelling. New methods of conservative medicinal treatments are being developed. One such technique called Regenerative Injection Therapy (RIT) uses your cells to create an injection of platelet-rich plasma (PRP) to aid in healing.
Be sure to eat well and get the nutrients your body needs to heal. Proper nutrition is an invaluable tool that aids in recovery.
Physical therapy (PT) will be crucial to meniscus tear recovery, whether surgically repaired or self-healed. Once the swelling goes down and you can bear weight on the injured knee, a physical therapist will give you rehabilitative exercises. These exercises will help restore knee function, increase flexibility for a full range of motion, and strengthen the support muscles around the knee to stabilize the joint and help prevent further injuries.
How Long Does a Torn Meniscus Take to Heal?
Torn meniscus recovery time depends on the person and the injury. Younger people may recover quicker than older people, as healthy people may heal faster than those with multiple chronic health conditions.
A torn meniscus treated non-surgically generally takes six to eight weeks to heal.
When Healing a Torn Meniscus Naturally Doesn’t Work
Usually, patients are encouraged to use non-surgical treatment methods to heal meniscal tears. However, surgery for a meniscus tear may be necessary if:
- The tear created tissue that is impeding normal knee function.
- The tear would benefit from surgical repair more than conservative treatments.
- The pain or injury is severe and requires surgery.
- Symptoms don’t decrease after non-surgical treatment.
Meniscus tear surgery is typically an arthroscopic surgery and is minimally invasive. Meniscus surgery is common and performed on about 850,000 people a year in the United States.
Not all meniscus tears are the same. The type of tear and the location, as well as the health and age of the patient, will determine whether a meniscus tear is better treated with surgery or non-surgical interventions.
If you have knee pain or suspect a meniscus tear, make an appointment with a MOSH orthopedic specialist. Our expert staff includes orthopedic surgeons, support professionals, and rehabilitation teams ready to get you back on your feet and active again. For immediate care, visit one of our new Ortho Walk-in Clinics.
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