What are the symptoms of a meniscal tear?
The symptoms of a meniscal injury depend on the type and position of the meniscal tear. As many as six in every ten people have a meniscal tear without any ongoing knee symptoms at all, especially if they are due to wear and tear (degeneration).
- Pain. The pain is often worse when you straighten your leg. If the pain is mild, you may be able to continue to walk. However, you may have severe pain if a torn fragment of meniscus catches between the tibia and femur. Sometimes, an injury that you had in the past causes pain months or years later, particularly if you injure the knee again.
- Swelling. The knee often swells within a day or two of the injury. Many people notice that their knee is slightly swollen for several months if the tear is due to degeneration.
- Knee function. You may not be able to straighten the knee fully. In severe cases you may not be able to walk without a lot of pain. The knee may lock from time to time if the torn fragment gets in the way of normal knee movement. Some people notice a clicking or catching feeling when they walk. (A locked knee means that it gets stuck when you bend it and you can't straighten it without moving the leg with your hands.)
Note: a 'clicking' joint (especially without pain) does not usually mean you have a meniscal tear.
For some people, the symptoms of meniscal injury go away on their own after a few weeks. However, for other people the symptoms persist long-term, or flare up from time to time, until the tear is treated.
What are the symptoms of damaged articular cartilage?
It is much less common to damage your articular cartilage than it is to damage your meniscal cartilage (a meniscal tear). If you do injure your articular cartilage, it is very likely that you have also injured another part of your knee at the same time, such as one of the ligaments or your meniscus. The symptoms that you get from any other injury may be more noticeable than the symptoms that are being caused by the injury to the articular cartilage. See separate leaflet called Knee Ligament Injuries for more details.
- Articular cartilage does not contain any nerves or blood vessels but you may still feel pain from a damaged articular cartilage. If it is painful, the pain tends to be felt around the joint line and on movement.
- 'Locking' of the knee can occur if a piece of cartilage affects the smooth movement of the knee.
- The knee may swell and it may be painful to weight bear.
Further reading and references
Englund M, Guermazi A, Gale D, et al; Incidental meniscal findings on knee MRI in middle-aged and elderly persons. N Engl J Med. 2008 Sep 11359(11):1108-15.
McDermott ID, Amis AA; The consequences of meniscectomy. J Bone Joint Surg Br. 2006 Dec88(12):1549-56.
Sihvonen R, Paavola M, Malmivaara A, et al; Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy versus sham surgery for a degenerative meniscal tear. N Engl J Med. 2013 Dec 26369(26):2515-24. doi: 10.1056/NEJMoa1305189.
Knee pain - assessment; NICE CKS, March 2011 (UK access only)
Bark S, Piontek T, Behrens P, et al; Enhanced microfracture techniques in cartilage knee surgery: Fact or fiction? World J Orthop. 2014 Sep 185(4):444-9. doi: 10.5312/wjo.v5.i4.444. eCollection 2014 Sep 18.
van den Bekerom MP, Struijs PA, Blankevoort L, et al; What is the evidence for rest, ice, compression, and elevation therapy in the treatment of ankle sprains in adults? J Athl Train. 2012 Jul-Aug47(4):435-43. doi: 10.4085/1062-6050-47.4.14.
Holzer LA, Leithner A, Holzer G; Surgery versus physical therapy for meniscal tear and osteoarthritis. N Engl J Med. 2013 Aug 15369(7):677. doi: 10.1056/NEJMc1307177#SA1.
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