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Knee Pain: Meniscus Tears vs. Arthritis

Rendering of knee

Meniscus tears are one of the most common knee injuries that can happen at any age. These tears have symptoms that are very similar to knee osteoarthritis, such as pain, swelling, and lack of mobility. For older patients with knee pain, it’s important to understand the differences between pain from a meniscus tear and pain from knee osteoarthritis in order to get proper treatment. In this article, we asked our founder, Dr. Robert Dean, to explain these differences and how meniscus tears and knee osteoarthritis are often connected.

Knee Pain: Torn Meniscus or Osteoarthritis?

“In younger individuals, a torn meniscus is most often the result of a sudden twist in the knee during activity,” says Dr. Dean.  “Tears can also happen as the meniscus wears down with age. Most people over the age of 60 have some degree of meniscus tearing, fraying, or degenerative thinning.”

To identify the root cause of knee pain, patients should first think about when the pain started. This, combined with the patient’s age and general activity level can help determine if the pain is due to a torn meniscus or osteoarthritis.

“If knee pain started suddenly, or after rigorous activity such as running or participating in sports, the pain may be the result of a meniscus tear,” says Dean. “But, if the pain has been increasing steadily over time and you can’t pinpoint an exact time or cause, the pain could be the result of arthritis.”

To put everything into layman’s terms, Dr. Dean explains it like this:

  • Meniscus tears and osteoarthritis can be confusing because both conditions affect cartilage in the knee.
  • The meniscus is a tough and rubbery cartilage that absorbs shock in the knee between the shin and thigh bones.
  • When a meniscus tear occurs, patients often feel an immediate sharp pain after the injury.
  • While some meniscus tears can be severe and require surgery, many cases can be treated with rest, ice, compression, and over the counter medications.
  • Knee osteoarthritis is the general term for the disease that wears down hyaline cartilage, which is the hard and slick coating that prevents the bones from grinding against each other. It’s the same cartilage you find at the end of a chicken bone.
  • Hyaline cartilage typically wears down in spots, which Dean describes as “tiny potholes in your chicken bone cartilage”. The medical term for this wearing is Chondromalacia.
  • As knee osteoarthritis worsens and the cartilage wears down more, this can cause a “bone on bone” diagnosis indicating that the cartilage is no longer providing a barrier between the bones, causing them to rub against one another.
  • Once you are diagnosed as bone on bone, this means you have no meniscus left and it cannot be the cause of your pain.
  • However, those with meniscus tears can still develop knee osteoarthritis and it’s important to watch for symptoms over time.

Diagnosing Your Knee Pain

“Whenever knee pain impacts your daily activities, it’s time to see your doctor,” says Dean. “Once you discuss the cause of your pain, your doctor may take X-Rays to properly diagnose the condition and recommend treatment. If for any reason you are told you must have surgery – always seek a second opinion.”

According to Dean, surgery may provide some patients with the relief they need while others can successfully treat the pain without the risks of surgery.

“At AROmotion, our treatment can stop pain from knee osteoarthritis fast and without surgery,” says Dean. “If you or a loved one has been told that your only option is total knee replacement surgery, I encourage you to seek another opinion first. At AROmotion, we offer free consultations where we can determine if you are a candidate for our minimally-invasive treatment as an alternative to surgery.”

If you are living with chronic knee, hip, or shoulder pain that’s preventing you from daily tasks and activities, you can complete the form below to request your free consultation with Dr. Dean to see if you are a candidate for AROmotion, which has helped more than 2,000 patients stop their joint pain fast without surgery.

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