When you hear the dreaded words “torn knee cartilage,” your doctor is probably referring to the meniscus in your knee. The meniscus is a type of cartilage that aids in shock absorption and stability of the knee. A torn meniscus may occur at any age, and is often the result of trauma or a sporting injury that may or may not be accompanied by other injuries, such as torn ligaments and sprains. This type of injury is quite common, and the appropriate care and therapy can help reduce the pain, swelling and healing time required in case of a torn meniscus.
Rest is the first step to healing torn knee cartilage. You must give your body time to recover. During the first few days, you should not squat or kneel, sit for long periods of time, run or jog. Lie down with your knee supported by a pillow, if possible. If you must sit, stretch out your leg and support the slightly bent knee with a pillow.
If your knee is swollen, apply ice to both sides and the top of the joint. Do not apply heat since that will increase the swelling and delay recovery. Icing should be almost continuous for the first 12 hours after injury and continued frequently until the swelling is completely gone.
Anti-inflammatory medications may help reduce the swelling also, and will certainly reduce the pain and discomfort. Wrap your knee to support it and limit movement, but never so tightly you reduce blood circulation. You may also benefit from using capsaicin ointments, but never apply these pepper-based ointments over an open wound or a rash.
More Aggressive Treatments
Your doctor may recommend cortisone injections to speed healing and reduce pain. Large tears or those that refuse to heal may be treated with surgery (called arthroscopy) to repair or remove the torn cartilage. Surgical procedures should be avoided if possible because while they may repair the problem right now, they increase the odds of arthritis in the future. Arthroscopy is typically an outpatient procedure that requires only a local anesthetic.
Rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medications should reduce the swelling within a day or two, and healing can begin. Once the cartilage is torn, it is extremely slow to heal because the blood supply to the area is poor.
As soon as you are able, gently exercise your knee within the limits of your motion to increase the blood supply. Don’t aggravate the injury by doing too much too soon—be gentle. Low-impact sports can be resumed within 2 to 3 weeks with your doctor’s approval. Full activity may possibly resume in 3 weeks, but it can take up to 3 months to make a full recovery.
If your knee pain persists for more than a few days or is sharp, see your doctor as soon as possible. If your torn knee cartilage requires surgery, your doctor will advise you on recovery timelines and how much work your knee can handle.
To differentiate between torn meniscus and other potential knee problems, your doctor will look for swelling next to or above the kneecap. Your movement may be limited because the knee locks up or gives out when pressure is applied. In addition, a torn meniscus produces pain along the thigh and leg bones both inside and outside the knee, or may cause pain behind the knee.