Meniscal Tears and Osteoarthritis

Meniscal tears are common knee injuries. Most often, you hear about athletes who experience meniscal tears, but any individual at any age can tear a meniscus.

Chiropractic examination of a patient's knee
Adam Gault / SPL / Science Photo Library / Getty Images

What Is the Meniscus?

Three bones come together to form your knee joint: the femur (thighbone), tibia (shinbone), and patella (kneecap). Between the femoral and tibial components of the knee, there are two wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage—each one is called a meniscus. Each tough and rubbery meniscus serves to cushion the knee joint and stabilize it.

Overview of Meniscal Tears

A meniscus can tear. Often, a meniscal tear occurs suddenly during athletic activity. Contact sports (for example, football) can easily cause a meniscal tear—but you can also squat or twist the knee and cause a meniscal tear. In older people, meniscal tears can occur after cartilage wears thin and weakens. If the menisci are weakened due to aging, any sort of twisting movement can be enough to cause a tear.

There are different types of meniscal tears: bucket handle, transverse, longitudinal, flap, parrot-beak, and torn horn. The name is based on where the tear occurred on the meniscus.


The first sign of a meniscal tear may be that you feel a "pop" in the knee. Other symptoms commonly associated with a meniscal tear include pain, stiffness, swelling, locking knee, the feeling of your knee giving way, and restricted range of motion. A piece of torn meniscus can detach and become loose, potentially causing your knee to pop, slip, or lock.


An MRI can help detect a meniscal tear. X-rays do not show meniscal tears, as they are in cartilage rather than in bone. Healthcare providers can also utilize a McMurray test to help diagnose a meniscal tear. With the McMurray test, your healthcare provider will bend and straighten your knee while gently twisting your shin bone. Feeling or even hearing a click along the sides of your knee suggest a torn meniscus.


Treatment of a meniscal tear depends on several factors such as the location of the tear, your age, and your activity level. The outer third of the meniscus has more blood supply than the inner two-thirds. A tear on the outer, more vascularized part of the meniscus may heal on its own, or it can be repaired using arthroscopic surgery. A tear on the inner, less vascularized part of the meniscus is usually trimmed away since the margins of the tear often cannot grow back together. Rehabilitation usually follows a post-surgical period of knee immobilization. If the approach to healing is nonsurgical, rest, ice, compression, and elevation (R.I.C.E.) are important.

Meniscal Tear If You Have Osteoarthritis

According to a study published in 2012, there are more than 300,000 knee arthroscopies performed each year in the United States on patients who have a meniscal tear and osteoarthritis in the same knee compartment—as if surgeons might be able to fix both problems at once. While arthroscopy is considered effective for meniscal tears alone, its effectiveness for associated osteoarthritis is less clear. There is strong evidence that arthroscopy is not beneficial for knee osteoarthritis alone, thus the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons cannot recommend this therapy for knee osteoarthritis.

The MeTeOR study (Meniscal Tear With Osteoarthritis Research) was conducted to evaluate the effect of arthroscopy versus nonsurgical treatment in a group of more than 300 patients with both a meniscal tear and mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis. Seven orthopedic centers in the United States were involved in the study, which was sponsored by the National Institutes of Health. It concluded there were no significant differences in functional improvement between the surgical and nonsurgical groups. However, a third of the patients who had physical therapy alone underwent surgery within six months.

Do Meniscal Tears Predispose Patients to Develop Osteoarthritis?

Several studies have concluded that a meniscal tear can lead to knee osteoarthritis. On the flip side of that, knee osteoarthritis can lead to a spontaneous meniscal tear through breakdown and weakening (degeneration) of the meniscus. A degenerative meniscal lesion observed on MRI is suggestive of early osteoarthritis. Even with surgical resection to remove degenerative lesions, osteoarthritis may still progress.

Partial meniscal resection has been associated with less radiographic knee osteoarthritis (i.e., knee osteoarthritis observed on X-ray) than total meniscectomy. There is also evidence that meniscal damage not treated surgically remains a significant risk factor for the development of radiographic knee osteoarthritis.

4 Sources
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  1. American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Meniscus Tears.

  2. Katz JN, Chaisson CE, Cole B, et al. The MeTeOR trial (Meniscal Tear in Osteoarthritis Research): rationale and design featuresContemp Clin Trials. 2012;33(6):1189–1196. doi:10.1016/j.cct.2012.08.010

  3. Chambers HG, Chambers RC. The Natural History of Meniscus Tears. J Pediatr Orthop. 2019;39(Issue 6, Supplement 1 Suppl 1):S53-S55. doi:10.1097/BPO.0000000000001386

  4. Englund M, Guermazi A, Roemer FW, et al. Meniscal tear in knees without surgery and the development of radiographic osteoarthritis among middle-aged and elderly persons: The Multicenter Osteoarthritis StudyArthritis Rheum. 2009;60(3):831–839. doi:10.1002/art.24383

By Carol Eustice
Carol Eustice is a writer who covers arthritis and chronic illness. She is the author of "The Everything Health Guide to Arthritis."