If you've recently been diagnosed with a torn meniscus, you may be going about your daily activities with little or no knee pain. In fact, some meniscus tears are so symptom-free, you can go months or even years without noticing your knee has suffered damage. You may not want to undergo an operation or the associated recovery time when you feel (mostly) fine. However, waiting too long to have a torn meniscus repaired can have significant effects on the structure of your knee. Read on to learn more about when you should have a torn meniscus repaired and when you can wait, as well as the variety of procedures that will be available to you.
What is a torn meniscus?
Your meniscus is the rubbery layer of cartilage between your femur and tibia. Two crescent-shaped menisci form a circle around the bottom of your knee, stopping and starting at your kneecap. Because there is little blood flow to the meniscus, tears can happen easily (especially while squatting and twisting or making sudden contact with the ground), and are not easily healed. The outer edges of the meniscus have the least blood flow and are thinner than the rest of the meniscus, making them particularly susceptible to tearing.
In some cases, the torn bit of meniscus can come into contact with other parts of your knee, causing pain and limited range of motion. You may begin feeling a "catch" in your knee or feel like it always needs to pop. In other cases, you may not notice you have a torn meniscus until the tear becomes severe and your knee begins making bone-on-bone contact. This can lead to osteoarthritis (even at a young age) and significantly impact the structure of your knee, potentially making you a candidate for a future meniscus or total knee replacement.
When should you have a torn meniscus repaired?
When you visit an orthopedic surgeon, he or she will examine an MRI of your knee to determine where the tear is located and how it is impacting the rest of your knee. In some cases, the tear may be minor enough that there isn't much the surgeon can do to improve its structure, and surgery may be unnecessary. You'll want to visit an orthopedist every few years to make sure the tear isn't becoming worse and avoid activities that could cause further strain to your knee (like football or other contact sports).
In other cases, the torn part of the meniscus may need to be shaped or trimmed so that it doesn't cause further damage to your knee. If your tear is large but symmetrical, the surgeon may be able to place a few stitches to keep it connected. But if you've lived with a torn meniscus for many years, it may have degraded enough that your only viable surgical option is a meniscus transplant or total knee replacement.
How is a torn meniscus repaired?
Minor tears can be repaired through arthroscopic surgery -- your surgeon will make several tiny incisions around the edges of your knee and guide small surgical tools through these openings to trim or otherwise repair the meniscus. The recovery time for this outpatient surgery is fairly short, and you shouldn't notice any significant impact on your daily lifestyle.
If your meniscus is severely degraded, a meniscus transplant may be a good option. This uses live, donor cartilage (rather than plastic or metal) to completely replace your meniscus and a portion of the bone in your tibia. This is a particularly good option for those who have severe tears at a young age, since total knee replacements aren't usually recommended for patients under age 55.
However, if you're at this age or older, you may benefit from a total knee replacement. This removes your entire joint and replaces it with a durable, flexible plastic joint that can handle significantly more impact than your damaged knee. You'll enjoy greater mobility and little to no knee pain after your surgery. However, the recovery time for this operation is lengthy, so you'll want to treat your new knee kindly after surgery to avoid having any follow-up operations.
For more information, talk to your orthopedic surgeon or visit http://www.towncenterorthopaedics.com.