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July 27th, 2011
08:01 AM ET

Will my meniscus tear heal without surgery?

Every weekday, a CNNHealth expert doctor answers a viewer question. On Wednesdays, it's Dr. Otis Brawley, chief medical officer at the American Cancer Society.

Question asked by Gloria from San Antonio, Texas

I just learned I have a tear in my meniscus. Can this heal any way other than surgery?

Expert answer

The meniscus is a crescent-shaped pad of fiber and cartilage. There are two in each knee sandwiched between the tibia (bone of the shin and lower leg) and the femur (the bone of the thigh or upper leg).

Their purpose is to distribute the force of weight placed on the knee while walking and running. The meniscus stabilizes the knee during rotation, and lubricates the knee joint.

A meniscal tear is a very common injury. Traumatic tears occur most often from twisting motions commonly found in soccer, football, basketball and other sports. Older patients are more subject to degeneration of the meniscus and can be prone to tears with minimal twisting or stress.

There may be little or no pain at the initial injury and athletes often continue playing after a meniscal injury. Within a day or so after the tear, there is usually pain, swelling and stiffness of the knee.

A large tear can impair the smooth bending motion of the knee and cause locking, catching or "giving out" of the knee. A smaller tear can be perceived simply as instability of the knee.

A health care provider may make a presumptive diagnosis through history and physical examination or may do imaging with ultrasound or magnetic resonance imaging.

Some patients may also get the definitive diagnosis through exploratory arthroscopy, which is a surgical procedure in which a scope is placed in the knee allowing the surgeon to directly see the meniscus.

Initial therapy of a torn meniscus in a stable knee involves avoiding things that cause pain. One should apply ice to the knee 15 minutes every four hours and elevate the knee.

Crutches and a leg cuff may be needed to enable walking without pain and protect the knee from unnecessary bending and twisting. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, such as ibuprofen, are also useful.

After the initial inflammation subsides, exercises to strengthen the quadriceps and hamstring muscles of the upper leg are usually prescribed. This is best done under the supervision of a physical therapist.

Conservative therapy with muscle strengthening is frequently all that is needed for minor tears in which good knee function returns as inflammation subsides.

The meniscus has very little blood flow, and it often does not heal. Some patients getting conservative therapy for an old tear may have an occasional knee problem and may eventually choose to have surgical treatment.

Candidates for early surgery are patients who have persistent difficulty after the initial inflammation subsides. These patients are often unable to bear weight, have restricted knee movement, have continued pain or have other knee problems such as ligament damage. These patients generally have larger, more complex tears.

The meniscal surgery may be a repair of the tear or removal of part or all of the meniscus. The operation is most often done by arthroscopy, but in some instances has to be done through an open procedure with a larger incision.

Long-term, patients with untreated tears of the meniscus or who have removal of part or all of the meniscus are at increased risk for osteoarthritis.

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soundoff (112 Responses)
  1. Kathy

    Had medial meniscus tear in left knee; arthroscopic surgery almost over a year ago now. Highly recommend having the surgery. Was walking on it immediately; however, for about a week after surgery iced and elevated as recommended. Didn't want any setbacks.

    December 16, 2013 at 14:18 | Report abuse | Reply
    • jake

      just want to let others know my story. tore my menisucs while sprinting 50m, took a bad step and leg came off on an awkards angle, even ground. heard a pop and instantly new i did something. came to a hault and then jogged over to the bench without to much pain. did some test and i couldt bend my knee past 90 degrees without severe pain in the lateral side of my knee. went to a doctor next day who confirmed lateral meniscus tear because everything as was in place...i already suspected this. he said go home come back in 3 weeks and see if its heald up if it hasnt surgery may be an option. knee became very stiff and felt like it was swollen but no obvious swelling was visible. basically lost alot of muscle over the next 4 weeks as i couldt do really anything. too much walking on it was painful. and i had crutches for 2 and a half weeks and a brace for around a month. decided not to go back to doc because i didnt want my meniscus partially removed.. i wanted to be conservative. its handy to know that i had no clicking, no locking. just pain and considerably reduced range of motion in the knee when bending backwaards and all round weakended knees and legs because of the lay off from activity. anyway i stretched every day with low intensity physical activity for about an hour and a half every day after about the 4 and a half week mark. knee was sore after exercise and especially at night time felt stiff. now at week 7. 85 percent strength return in leg. can do almost all activities except sprint at this point because im too scared to try and sprint just yet. 95 percent range of motion gained back. the last 5 percent is still painful. i cannot do a full squat where my ankles touch my bum. but i can do exercise squats etc with no pain. i do have slight pain to the touch on the lateral side where the injury occured and this is expected. i must say i believe i have been extremely lucky it did not tear at the handle or anything like that. i HAVE NOT had an MRI but i have no locking, clicking, catching and none of the meniscus tore out because there is no pain with movement, only when i try and stretch thequad to that last 5 percent a this point at week 7. its very possible i only had a grade 1 or a early grade 2 tear, but its worth nothing for the first 3 weeks i literally couldnt walk on it properly. major joint pai, aching and stiffness. though with rest, ice , elevation and a little bit of rehab /strecthing/minin squats etc to strengthen the legs the injury has subsides drastically at this point. though i will note that at say week 4 and 5 i was sitting there wondering if i was going to ever be able to return to full activity again but the last of the injury has subsided quickly. my point is surgery is definitly not always the option! they could have removed half my meniscus when it wasnt necessary because it was going to heal up anyway. surgeons are out to make money. you need to work out what the best options are for you. i have just recently started seeing a physio who has put me on to some great new exercises and stretches to strengthen muscles and weak areas which have faded/ standing out since the injury and he is confident he will be able to get me back to where i was before after i told him how well ive recovered from the meniscus tear, having only to gain some motion back in the leg. good luck people and i suggest if you DO NOT HAVE LOCKING OR INTENSE PAIN WITH GENERAL ACTIVITY AFTER 4-8 WEEKS your injury can likely be resolved conservatively. locking and catching off the knee is a different story. that could indicate the menisucs has torn in an area which will not heal on its own or an area which must be operated on otherwise it can lead to degeneration of other knee cartilage and further problems in the future.

      November 5, 2014 at 03:15 | Report abuse |
  2. Paul

    One has to remember that only the outer edge of the meniscus receives blood flow to allow for initiation of some form of healing. The inner portion of the meniscus receives very limited or no blood flow, hence, tears in this region will need consideration for surgery.

    Every case is different and numerous factors need to be taken into account prior to the consideration of surgery which include the person's age, general ability to heal, current lifestyle and the lifestyle they hope to lead into the future. Never an easy decision.

    February 18, 2014 at 22:49 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Paul

      A good start for learning more about the meniscus, other than through CNN, would be aidmymeniscus.com

      February 18, 2014 at 22:52 | Report abuse |
  3. Glennp

    Trying to understand if you have surgery to remove the damaged/torn areas, what fills in these voids now. Will the meniscus grow back? Confused, just found out my Rt knee inner and outer meniscus have tears (inner worst). Feeling good/movement good so just surprised with the review of the MRI results today, since thought everything was good since I've laid off sport.

    March 20, 2014 at 15:09 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. radhay jagdish

    i had a medial meniscus partially tear with a linear fracture in the intrmedullary canal of the tibia. it occurred six weeks back . the fracture was not seen inthe x ray but only after amonth while doing an mri. please tell me for how long it will take to recover.

    July 28, 2014 at 06:39 | Report abuse | Reply
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    October 11, 2014 at 18:55 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Fabien

    I have just had knee reco and the surgery reports states.

    Probing revealed an inferior surface partial thickness vertical longitudinal tear on the inferior surface of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus. The tear was very peripheral and was approximately 12 mm in length. As it was stable, it was felt that there was little to be gained by trying to suture it, given the patient’s age

    Can a stable about 12 mm very peripheral medial meniscus tear heal itself over time ?

    I have also got "There were small inferior surface and superior surface partial thickness vertical longitudinal tears on the posterior horn of the lateral meniscus . These were stable and were not addressed surgically" surgeon didn't think they were very signicant and would not cause me any issue unless I re – injure

    Any comments would be welcome

    January 22, 2015 at 18:40 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. Andrew

    I've had a torn meniscus for 3 months and just found out. I had surgery the other day and over all that time I had dead tissue in there do you think it will be healed to play football by September

    February 1, 2015 at 20:49 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Bob

    Have a tear in the medial meniscus, have just started physio at doc,s recommendation then assess after 4 weeks,possible surgery if no significant improvement. I noticed in an earlier blog that Toronto Sport Medicince said to stay away from lazer or ultra sound as part of physio therapy. Now I,m concern because the people doing my physio are doing ultra sound treatment. Appreciate any comments anyone who as had ultra sound as part of their rehab program.

    February 8, 2015 at 14:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Emily Merrell

    It is possible that your meniscus tear could heal without surgery, but it will take much longer. If you run as much as you say you do, then you'll want to get it taken care of. I would suggest talking to your doctor and he'll probably recommend an orthopedic surgeon. It's better to be safe than sorry. http://rochesterortho.net/workers-compensation

    February 26, 2015 at 16:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. K.B.Pandit

    I had a complex medial miniscus tear almost 7 years ago. Initially I had pain but later on it was normal. I could walk and play badminton also. But now it has become difficult for me to walk more than a kilometer or run a few steps. Generally I don't have pain but it pains when using stairs. Is it possible to cure it without surgery? Doctors says broken portion would be removed. But what about the gap created due to removal of such parts. Is the surgery safe. Would I be able to run after surgery? Won't it be a cause for knee replacement in future as I am 35 now?

    March 31, 2015 at 14:23 | Report abuse | Reply
    • green

      If generally no pain, then don't choose surgery, let time and rest heal it, although very slowly.
      Running is very bad for knee, so try not to run. If HAS to be removed, ask Dr. If he can do partial transplant or filing, try to to leave gap there.

      January 1, 2016 at 19:39 | Report abuse |
  12. Melanie

    I slipped and totally twisted my knee. Immediate searing pain. Had a difficult time walking and within 4 hours or so I could not bend it. There was minimal swelling. Went to my ortho doctor and suspects a miniscus tear. He gave me an injection which help considerably within a few hours. Had 2 good days and now it is getting stiff and hurting again and pops. I am 51....will this heal? I have an appointment in 2 weeks but now I am getting concerned. Thoughts?

    August 12, 2015 at 22:22 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Mayank

    My problem in knee started during running about four months ago.But I went on with it.After four months I got to know that I have a lateral meniscus tear.Now I want to know if it can be healed without surgery and if my knee will work as before or not?

    December 11, 2015 at 12:07 | Report abuse | Reply
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  17. Shabana

    After noticing sever pain and swelling on my left knee, I visited the Dr. who after MRI said it is a posterior horn medial meniscus tear. I have been taking medicine for last two months but still no much relief. I am still having pain, swelling and stiffness in the knee. I cannit bend it fully. please advise me.

    April 6, 2016 at 07:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  18. Jose

    I have a small tear on my meniscus can I do my own therapy for about 4months without having to do surgery

    April 6, 2016 at 21:41 | Report abuse | Reply
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  20. Amit

    I had an injury on knee while playing football over a gear ago. I got mri done three months down the line and it indicatEd "Tear in posterior horn of medial meniscus ". I consulted the doctor and asked him to operate as I lead a very healthy and active life and the in jury prevented me from running and Evenue fast walking. I am 35 now BTW. The doctor did a clinical examination and concluded that he didn't find too much amiss with knee and recommended rest. I have over the last year begun to jog to about 3-4km at times but the knee feels sore for days so now I avoid running. What's the long term outlook for me. Shud I go for 2nd opinion

    July 17, 2016 at 22:52 | Report abuse | Reply
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  23. Debbie Lyman

    I am 66, not had any knee issues until now. I had my rt foot planted at the top of the stairs and my left foot off the steps when my lab blasted past me and hit my rt leg and slammed me into the wall. I could not believe the pain, clear around my whole knee. Could not put any weight on it and ended up crawling to the bathroom. Immediately took 6 aleve and hobbled into doctor office next morning clinging to a walking stick. That Doctor did 2 X-ray and declared nothing broken. Said it would be better in 2 weeks. I was in misery the whole time and after 2 weeks saw a different Doctor who agreed to order MRI.
    I have a torn medial meniscus and no arthritis, which 1 st Doctor said I did. Went to CNOS orthopedic surgeon who gave injection, this is now almost 3 weeks after the injury. He said it's an unusual place for a tear. Now at a month I have to try a brace with a dial on it. I am on Medicare with Sigma supplement. I am still in much pain, and wondering how much more damage is being done before I am eligible for a surgery. I'm not a weenie, but I am so over this. Apparently you are more susceptible to arthritis if more damage is sustained.

    September 20, 2016 at 15:32 | Report abuse | Reply
  24. tina fields

    I have had meniscus tear since April ,lam told by my GP no surgery is necessary it will heal in time l have begged for physio (a long time coming ) most days in pain find it hard to walk far some days.lm doing my own stretcing exercises and some cycling ,getting desperate now ,l feel at 66 lm on my own .

    November 8, 2016 at 08:44 | Report abuse | Reply
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  26. collette

    According to my doctor not only is my meniscus a mess whats worse is the arthritis in my knee. To fix the meniscus i woukd then be bone on bone. He's suggesting a knee replacement down the road. He drained it and gave me a cortizone shot. By playing tennis/biking does it make it worse?

    January 2, 2017 at 13:00 | Report abuse | Reply
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    June 20, 2017 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply
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    Dear Sir/madam,
    I am from Gujarat, Odisha and after transfer to coastal area due to job, I have pain in right knee and after MRI I come to know that meniscus tear postel area (medial), I can not bend the fully and during stair or weiht lift pain in the knee. My age is 36/male and doctor have opinion for medication for one month hen go for arthoscopy.

    What should I do, kindly advise.

    July 1, 2017 at 01:51 | Report abuse | Reply
  34. Sheila Thomas

    I have a severe tear of the medial horn and a medial and anterior tear of the meniscus.. I am trying to heal. I have been trying to heal with no success for 6 weeks. I have tried everything humanly possible and am not healing. Help!!!! I am in my fifties,muscular, fit and motivated to heal. Pt is not working nor is acupuncture, low level laser,etc.

    July 21, 2017 at 23:52 | Report abuse | Reply
    • Sheila Thomas

      In the same boat. My meniscus is shredded. I dread the thought of surgery. Best wishes to you!

      July 22, 2017 at 00:08 | Report abuse |
  35. Sheila Thomas

    I have a severe tear of the posterior horn and a medial and anterior tear of the meniscus.. I am trying to heal. I have been trying to heal with no success for 6 weeks. I have tried everything humanly possible and am not healing. Help!!!! I am in my fifties,muscular, fit and motivated to heal. Pt is not working nor is acupuncture, low level laser,etc.

    July 22, 2017 at 00:06 | Report abuse | Reply
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