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A torn cartilage injury, also referred to as a meniscus tear injury, is one of the most common knee injuries amongst those aged over 65 and athletes who play contact sports, like football and rugby, or those that involve jumping, such as basketball.

The meniscus is part of the cartilage system in the knee that cushions the joint and keeps it stable. Damage to this area of the knee can be caused by trauma or a sudden twist or turn of the knee. Overuse and ageing have also been known to cause cartilage tears and is called degenerative meniscal tearing.

Diagram depicting a healthy knee joint and one with a torn meniscus

Symptoms of torn cartilage

Like other knee injuries, there might be a “popping” sound accompanying the injury; however, pain, swelling and stiffness might not be apparent immediately. In some cases, a meniscal tear might not cause any symptoms or problems at all.

Preventing injury

It is difficult to completely prevent torn cartilage injuries as many occur as a result of unforeseen accidents. However, there is a number of things you can do to reduce the impact of degraded cartilage in the future. This includes:

  • Maintaining a healthy diet
  • Keeping your knees flexible
  • Building up muscles in your legs

To prevent injuries to your knee while staying active, it is important that you sufficiently warm up and cool down. When returning to exercise, take it easy, give yourself more breaks and allow yourself to slowly build back up to the level you were at before.

Treatment

If you suspect a knee injury, you should book an appointment with your GP as they can carry out a physical examination of your knee by assessing its range of motion and stability. They are likely to distinguish a meniscal tear from this, but a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan can confirm a diagnosis.

The treatment you will be prescribed depends on the location and size of the tear. Other factors including age, level of activity and any related injuries are also taken into consideration.

If you have a small tear on the outer part of the meniscus, these injuries can often heal naturally by themselves while deeper cuts may require surgery. For injuries that don’t require an operation, the RICE protocol can be followed. The acronym stands for:

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation
Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation

A brace can be used to protect your knee during the healing process, while rest alleviates pain and balances out pressure. Ice and compression can be used to reduce and maintain swelling while elevating your knee above your heart level can prevent blood loss to the knee.

Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory medications (NSAIDS) can also help with reducing pain and swelling while a physiotherapist can suggest stretches and exercises to help strengthen and support the knee.

For large tears or where there is real instability in the knee, surgery may be the only treatment option suitable to repair the knee. Arthroscopy is the most common form of surgery - for more information on this type of surgery, click here. However, microfracture surgery may also be an option. This involves making holes on the surface of the bone to stimulate new cartilage growth.

Following surgery, your knee will be put in a cast or brace, meaning you might need crutches to help keep pressure off the affected knee.

How long will it take to recover?

Recovery time depends on the treatment route that has been taken. For non-surgical solutions, pain and swelling in the knee can often subside after a couple of days. If there was any instability in the joint, recovery time will be longer as you will be advised to maintain a healthy weight and participate in activities such as swimming as this doesn’t place as much pressure on the knees as other activities and is good for strengthening the joint.

For surgical solutions, recovery can take anything from six to three months, depending on which procedure is done. It is important that you listen to your physiotherapist as they will have designed an exercise programme to help your recovery.

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