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 (1,405 Responses)
  1. 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
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    September 25, 2014 at 20:10 | Report abuse | Reply
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  4. 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
  5. 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
  6. 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
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  10. 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
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  12. 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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  15. 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
  16. 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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    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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  24. Name*sherry

    I've had a torn meniscus on Monday for a while on my left side I have two bunions on my big toes now it's affecting the bottom of my feet also I can hardly walk I've been babying the left side and now my right knee is bothering me I have no idea what to do so bad . I do not have the finances to take care of all this is one of my going to end up in a wheelchair please help I don't want to be in a wheelchair , The only thing that helps now is pain reliever Vicodin and I don't like to do that all the time only when I sleep

    June 20, 2017 at 11:40 | Report abuse | Reply

    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
  26. 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 |
  27. 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.

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  37. Bob

    I tore my medial meniscus from simply getting up from the floor. They diagnosed it as a mild tear. The orthopedic doctor immediately referred me to surgeon for a possible knee scope without trying a less invasive route. I said, F that. It seemed like all he wanted was $$$$...

    I'm going through acupuncture now and it seems to be working.. Expensive, but at least they are not going inside my knee and messing it up.. I see improvements of walking up and down the stairs. I walk with no pain at all. full weight... Full range of motion. The only time I experience pain/sharp pain is when I accidentally twist my knee while bringing my injured foot forward to walk. I now wear a knee sleeve which compresses it and it helps a bazillion times more. Whenever it accidentally twist, I don't feel the pain at all/that much – I just know it's "wobbly" inside... I can't run which is ok for me.. As long as I can do my daily activities and play with my daughter, I'm settled at heart. Hopefully acupuncture can help with the healing. I just started so it's still soon to tell, but so far, have improvement.

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  41. Alex

    I was skateboarding in 2017 and took a fall but didn’t land on my knee and my knee kept hurting afterwards but I just thought it was a regular fall and it continued for a couple of months so I decided to stick skate as if it was a little bruise so I went to the hospital 4months later to find out I had a tiny tear on my meniscus all this time that’s always been causing me pain and they suggested that since it was a small tear I didn’t need surgery and I could still skate a bit and I did so so months pass by and this happened in December 2017 and now it’s December 2018 and I still feel the same exact pin maybe a little more I’ve been doing everything the therapist has told me to do and I still see no difference I’m too scared to have surgery but what should I do please help me out I’ve tried so much therapy and stretching and i still feel so much pain in my knee no matter what I do please let me know any options or your opinions it’d be greatly appreciated I’m very worried I’m going to end up needing surgery please let me know thank you.

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