Meniscal Tears and Other Knee Cartilage Injuries

Authored by Dr Jacqueline Payne, 01 Feb 2017

Patient is a certified member of
The Information Standard

Reviewed by:
Dr Helen Huins, 01 Feb 2017

A meniscal tear is defined as a tear of the meniscus inside the knee joint. There are other types of knee cartilage that can also be injured.

You've all seen the footballer on the telly - one moment he's running full pelt, the next he's tripped over another player and is clutching his knee in agony. There's a good chance an injury to his knee cartilage is at least part of the problem. There are two types of cartilage injuries that you can get in your knee:

  • Meniscal tears
  • Articular cartilage injuries

How do you get meniscal tears and other knee cartilage injuries

Meniscal tears are usually caused by landing suddenly on your knee at the same time as twisting it. They are common in:

  • Rugby
  • Football
  • Tennis
  • Basketball
  • Squash
  • Ski-ing

Having said all that, you can also get a torn meniscus that just develops gradually as you get older - these are called degenerative tears.

Articular cartilage injuries can also be caused by a sports injury but don't happen on their own as often. More often you get an articular cartilage injury when you have had a particularly bad injury to the knee and damaged other parts of the knee too.

Read more about who gets meniscal tears and articular cartilage injuries and what causes them.

What are the symptoms?

The common symptoms of a meniscal tear are:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Stiffness

These symptoms usually come on soon after an injury but will come on more gradually if the tear is one that has developed as a result of getting older (a degenerative tear). Articular cartilage damage causes similar symptoms but articular cartilage is more often injured alongside other knee injuries, so it may be those other injuries that cause most of your symptoms.

Find out more about the symptoms of knee cartilage injuries.

When should I see a doctor?

It's hard to say exactly when you should see a doctor as it depends largely on how bad your knee is and how it is affecting you. Certainly if you have had a painful, swollen, stiff knee for more than a month or so, it would be worth getting medical advice.

If you have injured your knee and it has swelled up immediately, especially if you can't put weight on it, you should get urgent medical advice as you may have a fracture or torn a ligament. For further details see separate leaflet called Knee Ligament Injuries.

Get more advice on when to see a doctor.

How is a meniscal tear or articular cartilage injury diagnosed?

It is usually possible for a doctor to diagnose your injury once they have heard how you injured your knee and have had a chance to examine your knee. Sometimes they will arrange for you to have an MRI scan, particularly if it has been going on long enough for them to think that it won't get better with time and physiotherapy and that you might need an operation. X-rays aren't helpful in diagnosing meniscal and cartilage injuries.

Find out more about the tests used.

What is the treatment for a meniscal tear or an articular cartilage injury?

For the first couple of days or so, you need to take it easy so you don't injure your knee any further - putting your leg up and using ice and a compression bandage and taking painkillers if you need to.

Read more about self-care.

After the initial really bad pain has begun to ease, it's important to get your knee moving. An appointment with a physiotherapist or a sports therapist at this stage can be very helpful. 

Find out more about physiotherapy.

Further treatment will then depend on how your injured knee is affecting you. If it is stopping you from being able to work, for example, you may need to see an orthopaedic surgeon and consider an operation.

Discover more about what's involved in the various types of operation.

Further reading and references

Am patiently waiting for knee replacement op in NHS Scotland after being told last January that I had Osteo Arthritis in my left knee and that my cartilage is badly worn so op is only way to correct...

Health Tools

Feeling unwell?

Assess your symptoms online with our free symptom checker.

Start symptom checker