A torn meniscus is a split through the fibres and matrix of the shock absorber of the knee.

Page updated August 2023 by Dr Sheila Strover (Clinical Editor)

meniscus shock absorber


The two menisci are crescent-shaped and cushion the space between femur and tibia on either side of the joint.

longitudinal tear of the meniscus


This illustration shows a longitudinal tear of the meniscus, which is likely to result in instability.


How meniscus tears occur

football player

In a healthy young person the meniscus can be torn without impact or with impact. A classic non-impact injury may be the result of the foot being planted while the body is twisted with force. In an older person, where there may be pre-existing degenerative changes, a relatively small event may lead to a tear.

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Torn meniscus symptoms

Usually the patient with a torn meniscus remembers:

  • an injury that involved a twisting motion, commonly a twist of the body with the foot planted on the ground, like a footballer kicking.
  • an audible noise at the time of injury
  • the knee may swell with blood soon after the injury.
  • Once the acute situation settles, the patient my have pain in the joint line and feelings of instability of the knee.

Older patients with degenerative tears may not recall a recent specific injury, but may notice that the knee is often painful and may feel unstable.

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Medial or lateral meniscal tear - which is worse?

medial versus lateral meniscus

Lateral meniscus tears are less common than medial meniscus tears, and the outcomes are different. Lateral tears tend to have a worse outcome because:

  • the lateral meniscus absorbs about 70% of the shock going through the joint.
  • the lateral meniscus is more mobile as there is less connection to the top of the tibia bone. There is actually a big gap where the popliteus tendon runs. Normally this is no problem, but tears running into this gap can reduce even further the connection to the tibia and this may significantly increase knee instability.

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Will a torn meniscus heal without surgery?

Healing of a tear in the meniscus without surgery will depend upon a number of factors:

blood supply of meniscus - cross section

  • the shape of the tear - radial tears and horizontal cleavage tears heal poorly (if at all)
  • how close the tear is to the inner rim - there is no blood supply in the inner rim. Tears close to the outer rim, where the blood supply is good, heal more efficiently (see cross-section of the meniscus on the right)
  • the size of the tear - large tears may lead to more displacement of the edges, so they cannot heal. A 'bucket-handle' tear may have a displacement of the torn part right to the other side of the rounded condyle

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How surgeons fix a torn meniscus

If the surgeon assesses the meniscus tear and feels that it is in the patient's best interest to repair it, he/she can use sutures (stitches) or small devices shot through the torn edges and hold the edges together until healing occurs - this is called meniscal repair. If the tear is close to the inner edge where blood supply is poor, a simple meniscal trimming may prevent further deterioration. If it is not feasible to repair a large tear, the surgeon may perform a partial meniscectomy or in desperate cases even a total meniscectomy.

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Forum discussions

  • Meniscus

    Loads of discussions between patients about meniscus problems.

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Meniscal tear
Torn cartilage

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Dr Sheila Strover (Editor)
BSc (Hons), MB BCh, MBA

See biography...

Types of meniscus tear -

Meniscus symptoms -

Tests for torn meniscus...

Meniscus surgery -

Video - a typical story -

Professor Adrian Wilson2012 - Medial meniscus tear - a typical story - by Professor Adrian Wilson (Knee Surgeon) (Knee Surgeon)


Notes from knee surgeons -

Peer-reviewed paper -


Professor Adrian Wilson examines a patient with a torn medial meniscus.


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