Treating knees: can a torn meniscus heal on its own?

The reasons people give for avoiding knee surgery are abundant. Concern about costs, infections, blood clots or unsuccessful outcomes usually top the list of the most reluctant knee patients.

We asked doctors at IU Health to respond to common objections expressed by people considering treatment for their knee injuries. The scenarios we posed are based on informal comments made by real people who have no connection to IU Health.

Our first scenario is a common injury for athletes and older people alike: a torn meniscus—the knee’s C-shaped cartilage that cushions your shin and thigh bones.

Patient objection
I’ve been diagnosed with a torn meniscus, but I don’t want to have it repaired surgically. I have a friend who had the same diagnosis and his injury healed without surgery just from riding the bike every day.

The doctor responds
This patient’s claim is not unfounded. Some patients do heal on their own with rest and physical therapy, according to John Baldea, a sports medicine physician with IU Health Physicians. Depending on the patient’s age and health, and the location, depth and duration of the injury, some tears will improve without surgery.

“If it’s a small tear on the outside rim of the meniscus, that’s an area which is well supplied with the necessary blood flow for healing,” Baldea said. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for interior tears, which may need to be trimmed away or sewn together to restore knee function.

Symptoms of concern for a possible meniscus tear:
• catching or locking of the joint
pain that doesn’t improve with rest
• swelling
• restricted range of motion in the knee, especially when flexing the knee in a deep squat
• buckling or instability of the knee, especially when switching from sitting to standing

Treatment is recommended on a case-by-case basis, but surgery is more common in younger patients or people who maintain and active lifestyle. “A good orthopedic surgeon or sports medicine physician will give you options and tell you the pros and cons of each option,” Baldea said.