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Treatment Options Associated With Meniscus Tears

To start off, we must first understand what the meniscus is and how it functions. Check out our previous blog to learn more about the meniscus.

     To summarize, the meniscus is a crescent-shaped cartilage that lays on top of the tibia on the inside and outside between the tibiofemoral joint, AKA knee joint. Furthermore, it plays a vital role in stabilizing, cushioning, and lubricating the knee during movement. 

     Due to the meniscus being on a weight bearing joint, it is susceptible to injury. Particularly during activities that involve sudden twisting, change of direction or impact movements, which is very common in basketball. When the meniscus tears, it can lead to pain, swelling, and reduced mobility in the knee.

     In addition to having a meniscus injury, there are different types of meniscus tears. For simplicity, they generally fall into two categories: traumatic tears and degenerative tears. Traumatic tears often occur as a result of sudden, forceful movements. Meanwhile, degenerative tears develop gradually over time due to wear and tear on the knee joint. 

     For this blog, we are going to highlight traumatic meniscus tears utilizing the examples of Karl-Anthony Towns “KAT” and Joel Embid. Both KAT and Embid suffered a traumatic meniscus injury during this 2023/2024 season.

Symptoms & Diagnosis

Symptoms of a meniscus tear vary depending on the severity and type of tear but commonly include:

  • Pain
  • Swelling
  • Tenderness Along the Joint Line
  • Mechanical Symptoms: Clicking, Popping, Locking & Catching of the Knee

These symptoms can significantly impact an individual’s ability to perform daily activities and participate in sports.

     Diagnosing a meniscus tear typically involves a thorough physical examination by a healthcare professional. However, the gold standard for proper diagnosis is magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). MRI scans are particularly useful for evaluating the extent and location of the tear, which helps determine the most appropriate treatment approach.

Treatment Options

     The treatment of a meniscus tear depends on several factors, including the individual’s age, activity level, the location and size of the tear, and the presence of any associated knee injuries. In general, treatment options for meniscus tears can be categorized as non-surgical or surgical.

Non-Surgical Options

If you had a minor or asymptomatic tear, non-surgical approaches should be your first option and may be sufficient. These treatment options include:

  • Rest to Allow for Healing & Decrease Irritation/Pain
  • Ice for Pain Management
  • Compression & Elevation for Swelling Management
  • Physical Therapy to Address All Associated Impairments
  • Use of Supportive Braces/Orthotics to Offload, Stabilize & Promote Healing of the Knee
  • Various Injections With Various Purposes: Reduce Pain/Swelling, Promote Healing, Etc.

Non-surgical treatment aims to reduce pain and inflammation while improving your knee function and mobility.

Surgical Options

     When conservative measures fail to alleviate symptoms, or in cases of more severe tears, surgical intervention may be necessary. There are several surgical procedures, but we’ll address a few for traumatic meniscus tears:

Meniscectomy:

     This procedure involves removing the torn portion of the meniscus. It is typically performed arthroscopically, using small incisions and a camera-equipped instrument called an arthroscope. Moreover, meniscectomy is often recommended for tears located in the avascular zone of the meniscus, where healing is limited due to poor blood supply. Meniscectomy offers a faster recovery time compared to other surgical options; however, it may increase the risk of long-term complications, such as accelerated joint degeneration and osteoarthritis.

Meniscus Repair:

     In cases where the tear is located in the vascular zone of the meniscus, where blood supply is adequate, meniscus repair may be possible. During this procedure, the torn edges of the meniscus are sutured together, allowing the tissue to heal back together over time. Furthermore, meniscus repair offers the potential for preserving the natural structure and function of the meniscus, reducing the risk of future knee problems. However, the recovery period for meniscus repair is typically longer compared to meniscectomy, and patients may need to restrict weight-bearing activities for several weeks to facilitate healing.

Meniscus Transplant:

     In rare cases where a significant portion of the meniscus is irreparably damaged or removed, meniscus transplantation may be considered. During this procedure, a donor or synthetic meniscus is transplanted into your knee joint, restoring cushioning and stability. Meniscus transplantation is a complex surgical procedure associated with a prolonged recovery period, and requires careful patient selection to achieve optimal outcomes.

NBA Examples

Karl Anthony Towns (KAT)

     KAT, a prominent NBA player for the Minnesota Timberwolves, recently suffered a meniscus tear, requiring surgical intervention. Given the nature of his injury and the reported symptoms, Towns’ medical team considered surgical options to address the tear and facilitate his recovery.

     Based on available information, it appears that Towns underwent a meniscectomy, a procedure aimed at removing the damaged portion of the meniscus. While meniscectomy offers the advantage of a shorter recovery time, there are concerns regarding the long-term implications for KAT’s knee health. With part of the meniscus removed, Towns may be at increased risk of developing osteoarthritis and other degenerative knee conditions in the future. Furthermore, he may run the risk of knee joint swelling/irritation that may limit his ability to practice & play in his future seasons in the NBA.

Joel Embiid

     Embiid, star center of the Philadelphia 76ers, tore his meniscus as well earlier this season in a contact injury against the Golden State Warriors. He has had a history of multiple meniscus tears. For example, he had a meniscus tear over a year ago; however, he opted to not have surgery and was able to play basketball later that month. Unlike his previous injury, he and his medical team opted to have surgery.

     Similar to KAT, he most likely had a meniscectomy given that he came back this season to play basketball. Like we mentioned above, meniscectomy is great short term, but not great long term. However it gives the athlete the fastest way back to competition. Sometimes they go back too fast while their knee is still not 100 percent. Joel Embiid mentions this on his first game back in this article.

Considerations for Recovery and Return to Play Following Surgery:

     Following surgery, you MUST go through a comprehensive rehabilitation program to restore strength, mobility, stability, and function in your knee. We highly recommend you work with a physical therapist to help you meet your goals. For example, for both KAT and Embiid, they will be working with their team physical therapist and likely their own personal physical therapist to return to the basketball court.

     It’s essential for you to prioritize long-term health and well-being of your knee and body during the recovery process. Rushing back to the court prematurely could exacerbate your injury and/or lead to further complications down the line. For these NBA players, their medical team will likely take a conservative approach, ensuring that they achieve full recovery before resuming competitive play, as well as a gradual ramp up to basketball without restrictions.

Conclusion:

     Meniscus tears are a common knee injury that can significantly impact your quality of life and athletic performance. While non-surgical treatments may be sufficient for some, surgical intervention may be necessary in cases of severe or symptomatic tears.

     Both Karl-Anthony Town and Joel Embiid’s recent injury highlights the challenges athletes face when dealing with meniscus tears. It demonstrates the importance of appropriate diagnosis, treatment, and rehabilitation. By following a comprehensive treatment plan and prioritizing long-term health, yourself and other athletes can optimize your chances of returning to the basketball court safely and effectively.

     As research and advancements in orthopedic medicine continue, it is hoped that individuals with meniscus tears will have access to innovative treatments that promote optimal outcomes and improve overall knee health.

The Basketball Doctors - Gabriel Ignacio Physical Therapist

Dr. Gabriel Ignacio PT, DPT, OCS, TPI

The Basketball Doctors - Marco Lopez Physical Therapist

Dr. Marco Lopez PT, DPT, CSCS

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