The menisci of the knee are two pads of cartilage that sit between the thigh bone (femur) and the lower leg (tibia). Normally they cushion the knee joint and help to prevent friction between the ends of the bones.
Sometimes a meniscus can become damaged or torn, either as a result of a sports injury or accident, or more gradually by a process of wear and tear. This can cause pain, inflammation, loss of movement and in some circumstances, clicking or locking of the joint. Athletes may sometimes complain of the knee joint becoming stuck in one position, or a feeling of instability as though the knee is about to give way.
A meniscus tear can also be accompanied by further damage to the knee, especially the ligaments. A relatively common sports injury is the “unhappy triad” involving damage to the meniscus, medial collateral ligament and anterior cruciate ligament.
How does it happen?
Many meniscus injuries involve rotation and sideways forces at the knee joint. Sideways impact on the knee from a takedown is one example. Alternatively, damage to the meniscus may accumulate over time, leading to a “degenerative” tear.
How do you know if you have one?
There are certain symptoms and clinical tests that can point a doctor or sports injury specialist towards the diagnosis of a meniscus tear, but to confirm this an MRI scan is normally required.
What’s the treatment?
Meniscus tears may be treated initially with rest, anti-inflammatory medication and physical therapy.
If it doesn’t improve, or there is significant locking or instability of the knee joint, surgery may be recommended. Recent research has suggested that surgery may not give better results than conservative treatment and exercise for many people, so it certainly shouldn’t be viewed as a “quick fix” option (here’s a previous article I’ve written on this topic).
If surgery is considered, much will depend on the nature of the tear itself and on whether there’s also damage to the ligaments of the knee. In the past, it was common to remove the whole of the meniscus, but studies have shown that this generally leads to altered biomechanics of the knee, and increases the likelihood of future problems such as osteoarthritis. Nowadays, more emphasis is placed on trying to preserve the meniscus if possible, either by repairing it, or by removing only part of it.
Whether or not surgery is required, exercise rehabilitation is an important part of the recovery process and shouldn’t be neglected.
How long can a fighter with this injury expect to be out for?
This can vary from a few weeks for a small tear that doesn’t require surgery to 6-9 months or more for an injury that also involves damage to the ligaments and requires surgery to repair.
With an uncomplicated removal of part or all of the meniscus tear, athletes can often return to sport within 6-8 weeks, but a repair has a longer recovery time, because the recovery time involves a period of non-weightbearing in order to protect the repaired cartilage. Despite this, a repair is often worth considering (when possible) as it is thought to give better long term results.
Who else has this happened to?
Recent MMA fighters to suffer from meniscus tears include Gokhan Saki, Robbie Lawler and Priscila Cachoeira. Over the years, meniscus tears have also been responsible for some high profile fight cancellations, including the Aldo / Pettis fight that was scratched from UFC 163 in 2013 after Pettis suffered a small meniscus tear leading up to it. Khabib Nurmagomedov was also pulled from a match up with Donald Cerrone with a torn meniscus requiring surgery. There’s no many more fighters with meniscus tears that haven’t been made public.