Knee cartilage tears are often caused by sports injuries, but they can result from any activity involving twisting or bending of the knee. As you age, the everyday forces you put on your knees can wear out the cartilage, leading to a gradual injury that feels sudden — you're fine until one day, you squat or twist and you feel something ripping.
Because we lose cartilage naturally as we age, knee cartilage tears are more frequent in people over age 30.
Common causes of cartilage tears include:
- Climbing stairs or hills
- Hyper-flexing (bending the knee too far)
- Playing a contact sport like football or soccer
- Playing a sport that requires pivoting, such as basketball or golf
- Squatting (especially while lifting a heavy weight)
- Walking on an uneven surface
Symptoms of Torn Knee Cartilage
How do you know if you've sustained a cartilage tear?
You may experience acute symptoms like pain and buckling of the knee right after an injury, but not necessarily; sometimes, cartilage damage can happen gradually over time, resulting in intermittent symptoms. Some people with meniscus tears have no pain and don't even realize they have an injury.
However, even if you're pain-free, you will likely note one or more of the following symptoms:
- pain or tenderness in the knee (especially when running or walking long distances)
- buckling or locking of the knee joint
- crunching or popping noises when walking (especially up and down stairs)
- dull pain under the kneecap when exercising
- difficulty bearing weight
- inability to bend or straighten the knee
- swelling or "water on the knee," a buildup of fluid inside the knee joint
- tightness of the knee joint
Types of knee cartilage tears
What part of your knee cartilage have you injured? The two most common types of knee cartilage injury are:
- Articular cartilage tears, affecting the cartilage covering the ends of your bones at the knee joint. An injury to this cartilage is called a chondral injury. Chondral injury is commonly seen in cyclists, runners, skiers, and soccer players.
- Meniscus tears, affecting the c-shaped shock absorbers located on either side of your knee joint. Meniscus tears can happen to anyone at any age, but are particularly common in athletes who play contact sports like hockey or football.
Ligament injuries of the knee, such as ACL tears and PCL tears, are frequently confused with cartilage injuries. Though these are also components of the knee and share similar symptoms to cartilage tears, they're different and may be treated differently.
Diagnosing torn knee cartilage
The first step in treating a knee cartilage tear is to get diagnosed. Your doctor will take a medical history and ask you questions about any recent injuries or ongoing activities that may have contributed to your symptoms.
In some cases, if your cartilage tear is small and in a part of the meniscus that receives good blood flow, it may heal on its own within a few weeks.
With minor tears that self-heal, some people are able to get relief by practicing RICE therapy (rest, ice, compression, and elevation)rest, ice, compression, and elevation) or NICE therapy (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, like ibuprofen or naproxen), ice, compression, and elevation).
However, if your symptoms are severe, interfere with your daily activities, or persist longer than a few weeks, you should see a doctor. Ignoring a cartilage tear can result in further instability and injury to your knee joint.
A visit to your doctor can help to determine the condition of your knee cartilage and whether arthroscopic knee surgery may be an option to help address your symptoms and protect your bones from osteoarthritis.
After an exam, your doctor may recommend surgery to repair the torn cartilage in your knee. Depending on your specific injury, the condition of your cartilage and bone, and any underlying medical conditions you may have, your orthopedist may recommend one of the following:
- Arthroscopic meniscus repair, to suture the torn pieces of your meniscal cartilage back together
- Partial meniscectomy, to trim away the damaged parts of your meniscus, leaving only healthy tissue
- Full meniscectomy, to remove the entire meniscus
- Total knee replacement, if you have serious damage and/or bone degeneration
Articular cartilage repair
In the case of articular cartilage tears, procedures that may help include drilling, burring, or microfracturing, with the goal of stimulating the bone and creating scar cartilage. These techniques are often used on younger patients and athletes with isolated defects in their articular cartilage.
For older patients with significant wear and tear on the articular cartilage, a total knee replacement may be the preferred option.
WHEN TO CONSULT AN ORTHOPEDIC SURGEON
If you think you have a knee cartilage tear, give Coastal Orthopedics located in Corpus Christi, TX a call. Our orthopedic specialists can examine you, assess your condition, and discuss whether surgical repair may be an option for you. Telephone: 361.994.1166.
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