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The bones, ligaments, and muscles that meet in the knee joint are protected by a layer of cartilage tissue called the meniscus. The medial meniscus is the section that is deep within the joint, aiding in the flexibility of major ligaments. A medial meniscus tear can occur if an awkward twisting motion or direct impact puts excess strain on the ligaments and cartilage tissue. Such injuries usually result in immediate, severe pain and swelling. Depending on the nature and seriousness of a medial meniscus tear, treatment might consist of rest, medications, physical therapy, surgery, or a combination of all four.
Meniscus tears are fairly common in athletes who play fast paced, high impact sports such as football, basketball, and soccer. A direct blow to the knee during a tackle or a sudden twist to evade a defender can stretch the ligaments and tear the meniscus. A person who does not play sports can suffer a medial meniscus tear after a bad fall. Rheumatoid arthritis, obesity, and a history of knee problems can increase a person's risk of experiencing a tear.
In most cases, a medial meniscus tear is instantly noticeable after an injury. Swelling on the top and sides of the knee is common, and the area is usually very tender to the touch. A person may not be able to bend the knee or bear weight on the injured leg. If pain is severe, dizziness, nausea, and vomiting may set in within a few minutes. If a bad injury occurs, the leg should be immobilized as best as possible and the person should be brought to the emergency room.
A doctor can assess the severity of a knee injury by examining the joint, asking about the accident, and performing imaging tests. X-rays and magnetic resonance imaging scans are used to check for physical signs of ligament and cartilage damage. Treatment decisions are made based on the extent of damage and the patient's overall health.
In the case of a relatively minor tear where ligaments are still intact, a patient may simply be instructed to rest and ice the knee for about three weeks. When the joint starts feeling better, physical therapy exercises can help restore flexibility and strength to the joint. Many people need to wear protective knee braces and limit their activity for several months to help prevent another medial meniscus tear during recovery.
An injury that results in anterior or medial cruciate ligament damage usually requires surgery. A surgeon can remove damaged meniscus tissue, repair ligaments, and realign dislocated bones if necessary. Following surgery, most patients need to participate in physical therapy for two to six months. Some people are able to fully return to their previous level of activity, but a serious tear can potentially lead to a permanent disability or chronic episodes of knee pain.