Locations:
Search IconSearch

When Is Knee Surgery for a Meniscus Tear Your Best Option?

Your age and other factors may affect this injury

girl with knee brace for a torn meniscus

meniscus tear is among the most common knee injuries, but you might be surprised to learn that your doctor may treat your injury differently, depending on how old you are.

Advertisement

Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy

A meniscal tear is a tear in the cartilages, or menisci, that are located between the two bones that make up your leg. “Treatment depends on several factors, from your age to the overall condition of the meniscus,” says orthopaedic surgeon Richard Parker, MD.

How does a meniscus tear happen?

Like an insole in your shoe, menisci help absorb shock by providing a cushion between the upper and lower leg bones where they meet in the knee area. There are two of these crescent-shaped pieces of cartilage in each knee.

Meniscus tears often originate from a sudden twisting movement. The condition also can be caused by degenerative diseases like osteoarthritis. The injuries are sometimes sports-related, but they can also happen when you’re simply going about your everyday activities.

“This is true especially as you get older. Menisci start to get weaker around age 30, which means your risk of a tear increases as you age,” says Dr. Parker.

How do you know you have a meniscus tear?

The short answer is that you may not know. “You can live with a meniscus tear,” Dr. Parker says. “And it may heal on its own, or just not cause you problems.”

However, you’ll know pretty quickly when it is a problem. You may hear a popping sound when it happens, and your knee may hurt. It also may swell and feel stiff, and you might have problems moving your knee or straightening it completely.

You can’t diagnose a meniscus tear on your own, but the answers to a handful of questions — such as where and when it hurts — can help your doctor uncover the cause of your knee pain.

How is a meniscus tear treated?

If you think you’ve torn your meniscus, Dr. Parker recommends trying the steps spelled out in RICE as the first line of defense:

  • Rest.
  • Ice.
  • Compression (wrap it or wear a knee brace).
  • Elevation.

If these steps don’t help, your doctor may recommend one of two options: physical therapy or knee arthroscopy, a type of surgery. “In the past, it was typically surgery first and then physical therapy, but that has changed in recent years,” Dr. Parker notes.

“For those over the age of 40, or if you have arthritis, physical therapy alone may be as effective as surgery,” he says.

Advertisement

One of the benefits of starting with physical therapy is that you can still have knee arthroscopy if it isn’t effective. Another is that physical therapy doesn’t pose the same risks as surgery.

Arthroscopy is a common, safe surgical procedure used to diagnose and treat knee and other joint problems. But an infection risk or problems with anesthesia are possible with any surgery.

Finally, surgery might not fix the problem if, for example, there’s too much wear on the meniscus. Not all meniscus tears can be repaired surgically.

How to prevent a meniscus tear

You can’t stop the aging process or the normal wear it causes to your menisci, but you can make changes in your diet and exercise to keep your joints healthy. But bear in mind that not all exercises are beneficial.

Dr. Parker’s top recommendation as you get older is to avoid doing deep knee squats and similar activities. “They put a lot of stress on your knees,” he says, and the potential health benefit is offset by the potential for injury.

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t continue exercising or get started on a healthier lifestyle. Among other general injury prevention tips, Dr. Parker says, “the best advice is to take it slow and listen to your body as you exercise.”

Advertisement

Learn more about our editorial process.

Related Articles

Active elderly couple exiting tennis court
November 13, 2023/Orthopaedics
How Long Does a Hip or Knee Replacement Last?

They can last 10 to 15 years, but factors like age and activity level can impact their longevity

Adult running on treadmill to cushion their knees.
November 5, 2023/Exercise & Fitness
Is Running Bad for Your Knees?

Running doesn’t cause knee arthritis, but you can take steps to minimize cartilage damage

2 people doing wall squats after run.
April 4, 2023/Orthopaedics
5 Best Exercises for Runner’s Knee (Patellofemoral Pain)

Wall squats and calf stretches are among the exercises that can help ease knee pain

man in pain after sleeping
January 12, 2022/Chronic Pain
How To Keep Sore Hips, Knees and Shoulders From Ruining Your Sleep

Find the right sleep position to tame your joint pain

woman with osteoarthritis biking for exercise
October 14, 2021/Orthopaedics
The Best Exercises for Osteoarthritis (OA) of the Knee

Work on building strength and flexibility to keep the joints moving

Person in workout clothing performs a box jump in a gym
July 28, 2021/Exercise & Fitness
How to Avoid the Ominous ‘Pop’ That Signals a Torn ACL

Proper form is important when pivoting, turning and landing

icing knee to help with pain
July 18, 2021/Exercise & Fitness
IT Band Stretches and Treatments to Relieve Knee and Hip Pain

Take the ache away from your joints with these at-home exercises

patellar Tendon Strap
July 6, 2021/Orthopaedics
How a Patellar Tendon Strap Works

The simple and inexpensive band is a proven way to ease your knee pain

Trending Topics

Female and friend jogging outside
How To Increase Your Metabolism for Weight Loss

Focus on your body’s metabolic set point by eating healthy foods, making exercise a part of your routine and reducing stress

stovetop with stainless steel cookware and glassware
5 Ways Forever Chemicals (PFAS) May Affect Your Health

PFAS chemicals may make life easier — but they aren’t always so easy on the human body

jar of rice water and brush, with rice scattered around table
Could Rice Water Be the Secret To Healthier Hair?

While there’s little risk in trying this hair care treatment, there isn’t much science to back up the claims

Ad