That knee pain could be your meniscus

Didn’t the summer seem to fly by? I hope you’ve had a great summer and you’ve kept busy enjoying all the special wonders that make Delmarva such a special place. I hope you had a healthy one, too, and that the fall season will be good for you, too.

Unfortunately, the reality is that injuries do come along. One of the most common knee injuries is a meniscus tear. This is one nasty injury that is very painful and has a heck of an impact. There’s no soft-soaping it. It’s draining, and it hampers the simplest daily activities because it’s very tough to get around.

Do you know what a meniscus is and how it works? This is important information, because a torn meniscus doesn’t discriminate it. It can happen to younger folks and older folks, and that’s why we’re going to take a look together, because it’s so important to understand what it is, what the symptoms are and what treatments might be involved.

A torn meniscus is one of the most common knee injuries, but let’s put it in perspective here by first looking at what the meniscus is and what it does.

The meniscus is a chunk of cartilage. In your knee, it has two important jobs. It serves to stabilize your knee, which we all know is a critical joint for our mobility. It also serves as a sort of cushiony pillow that sits between your shin and thigh bones, protecting them from wear and tear. You have two of them in each knee.

Injury to your meniscus can happen in a few different ways. Sometimes, all it takes is a twist of the knee to tear your meniscus. You might also be involved in activities that include pivoting your knee. Movements like twisting or a quick pivot are high risk factors for injuring your meniscus.

Athletes and people who enjoy playing sports such as tennis, football or basketball have a bigger risk factor. These sports involve rapid pivoting, and sudden stops and turns that can cause meniscus damage.

But, the other side of the coin is that something as simple as a misstep off a sidewalk or a change of direction while walking or running can cause this painful injury. You can be lifting something that’s heavy or bend down to kneel, and that can sometimes lead to a torn meniscus.

You can also have a muscular imbalance, which is when one muscle is not working properly or isn’t really working at all. When that happens, other muscles try and compensate so, for example, you might start favoring one leg over another, and that places your meniscuses in the harder working knee at risk.

You might also have a poor gait when walking or running, which makes you a prime candidate for a meniscus tear. I know we’ve talked about shoes before, but shoes often play a role in an injury like this one. It’s all about proper step and balance, and if that’s not there, you’re placing a big strain on your knee, which means your meniscus is ripe for injury. And, under the heading of “there’s no escaping it,” those of us of a certain age are also at higher risk, because aging plays a role. The risk of a torn meniscus increases as you get older, due to wear and tear on your knees.

If you’ve torn your meniscus, you might experience what people describe as a sort of popping sensation. You will very likely experience pain and find it particularly uncomfortable when you move in a manner that involves turning or twisting the impacted knee or if you to try to straighten your knee all the way. Basically, you’ll likely notice a problem with your range of motion and you likely will have pain when walking, particularly if you try to walk up any stairs.

Swelling and stiffness is often associated with a torn meniscus, too. Some people say they feel as if their knee is locked up when they try to move it. Many also find that they notice a lack of strength.

The first and most important step you can take to deal with your injury is to make an immediate appointment to see a medical professional. I know I keep saying this, but it’s so important to get a proper diagnosis. You need a professional evaluation, and you don’t want to wait, because this is all about your mobility and getting the proper treatment to maximize your ability to heal. Keep in mind this is one of those real quality-of-life issues that directly impacts your daily activities.

Get ready for your appointment by writing down all the prescriptions you take, as well as the dosage, and also write down any supplements, including vitamins. Make sure you also write down any health problems or ongoing issues you may have so that your doctor is able to have a complete medical profile.

Include a description of how your injury occurred, what it felt like when it happened and the symptoms you are experiencing. If you have taken any medication, even an aspirin or ibuprofen for pain, don’t forget to include that information, along with any other steps you may have taken to deal with your injury. Did you ice your knee? Did you keep it elevated? It may seem like simple details, but all of this information is extremely important to help your doctor diagnose and treat your injury.

You might want to consider asking someone to go to the appointment with you. When you’re in pain and having difficulty moving, it can be hard to remember all the information you are being given. Another set of ears can help. I also want to encourage you to take notes on what you’re being told, because it’s easier to remember all that was said later.

When you see your doctor, you can expect that your doctor will likely perform a thorough examination and may require some imaging tests to determine the nature of your injury and how best to treat it. Some people have surgery, and some don’t. Your doctor will look at a number of factors to determine the best course of treatment based on your specific situation.

With a full picture, including where the tear is located and the severity of the tear, your doctor will put together a treatment plan that may or may not include surgery. Whether you have a surgical or nonsurgical treatment plan, ultimately, your doctor will likely refer you to a physical therapist to complete your recovery. Physical therapy is important in helping you achieve the best possible mobility based on your overall condition.

When you go to the physical therapist, you can expect that you will first have a thorough evaluation. In addition to an assessment to determine your current physical situation based on the impact of your injury, your physical therapist will likely talk to you to get beyond what tests and measurements say.

I know this is very important to me when I am meeting with my patients here at Tidewater. I want to make sure each patient talks to me about their concerns and issues, and I take that input into consideration when I am looking at how we best proceed in our partnership to get you moving, again.

Understanding your overall medical condition with input from your doctor, factoring the information gained from your evaluation and getting a meaningful picture of your lifestyle and needs from your input allows your physical therapist to devise a comprehensive, customized treatment program involving hands-on treatment and exercises to help you return to a normal range of motion, improve your mobility and build strength.

If you’re wondering how long it takes for a meniscus to heal, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. It depends on the type of process you went through and whether surgery was required, as well as your particular other factors. The most important thing you need to remember is that everyone heals at different rates. Your physical therapist and doctor work together to track your progress and keep you on track.

No matter what the age, we’re all vulnerable to strains and injuries. Taking them in stride and moving on with your life depends on you. Be proactive, get the care you need, be an active participant in your recovery program and get on to that next great adventure.

Bob Cairo is a licensed physical therapist at Tidewater Physical Therapy. He can be reached by calling (302) 537-7260.


By Bob Cairo

Special to the Coastal Point