UW Health Sports Medicine 

Sports Medicine Corner: Meniscus injuries

ON WISCONSIN <b>The menisci are visible where the tibia and femur meet in the knee</b>
The menisci are visible where the tibia and femur meet in the knee

June 16, 2010

Turf toe? What in the world is turf toe? University of Wisconsin graduate assistant athletic trainer Ryan Dean answers questions many fans have about common sports injuries in a new series on UWBadgers.com, The Sports Medicine Corner. In part five of the series, Dean examines injuries to the knee meniscus.

-- When it comes to knee injuries, athletes and fans alike usually fear the worst. With injuries like ACL tears costing an athlete up to a year on the sidelines, a knee injury is usually met with a great deal of fear and worry.

However, there are other injuries that can occur in the knee joint besides an injury to the ACL. While requiring a shorter recovery time than an ACL, an injury to the meniscus can still keep your favorite athlete out for several weeks. Today we take a look at the meniscus and what happens when one is injured.

What is it? A torn meniscus is an injury to the fibro-cartilage (not to be confused with joint-covering cartilage) structure inside the knee joint.

Where is it?
Each knee holds a pair of menisci, one towards the outside (lateral) side of the knee and another towards the inside (medial) side of the knee.

Why is it important?
The meniscus is an important structure for knee movement. The meniscus is actually a cartilage structure.  The human body contains several of these cartilage structures including the labrums in the shoulder and hip joints.  The importance of these structures lies in their ability to act as a shock absorber for the joint as well as to add knee depth for increased stability. Similar to a gel shoe insert, these structures help to absorb shock and prohibit bone-to-bone contact. Without a meniscus, actions as simple as jumping or cutting may cause contact and wearing of the joint surfaces between the lower (tibia) and upper (femur) leg bones.

Who’s at risk? Just like any injury, everyone is susceptible to suffer a meniscal injury. However, individuals involved with high-impact and running sports are at a higher risk to suffer from this injury. This is attributed to the repeated impacts the meniscus undergoes in a runner or jumper.  Also, athletes in high contact sports are at a higher risk because of the elevated risk of hitting and/or twisting the knee joint.

How is it injured? There are a few ways that the meniscus can be injured.  In one way, chronic (overuse) running can slowly cause a tear to occur.  These injuries take a while to develop and initially will present with minor pain. Another way to injure the meniscus is by causing a collision or twisting motion to the leg or knee. In these injuries, the athlete may feel a popping or tearing sensation accompanied with pain.

Then what?
An MRI is the best imaging method to diagnose a torn meniscus. Once identified, a torn meniscus can be treated in a variety of ways.  For minor injuries, the patient may forgo surgery and participate in physical therapy to strengthen the muscles of the leg. In the case of more significant tears, surgery is typically encouraged. During surgery a variety of techniques may be used. One method has the surgeon cutting or shaving the torn piece of meniscus off. In another method, similar to a shoulder labrum repair, the meniscus is sutured in an effort to allow the tear to heal.

How long?
A meniscus injury has a shorter recovery period when compared to a severe ligament injury such as a MCL or ACL sprain. For minor meniscus injuries, the athlete may return in as little as 2-4 weeks. For more significant injuries, full recovery may take upwards of 12 weeks.

Meniscus surgery rehab is much quicker than the rehab for an ACL injury. Athletes will typically be told to use crutches and refrain from full weight bearing for at least a few days.  Patients will begin recovery by focusing on strengthening the muscles of the leg as well as increasing the knee’s range of motion. After regaining both strength and range of motion, the athlete will slowly return to running exercises and eventually sport-specific activities (I.E. jumping, sprinting, cutting, etc.)

Who Had It?
Thousands of athletes have experienced meniscus problems. Due to the shorter recovery period and quicker return to play, these injuries are less publicized and are typically lumped together simply as “knee injuries”.


eMedicine: Meniscus Injury
More on the meniscus

Ryan Dean
UW Sports Medicine

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