A torn knee meniscus often has similar symptoms to knee osteoarthritis, making it difficult to know the cause of the pain.
Common symptoms of both osteoarthritis and a torn meniscus include:
- Pain around the knee joint, especially after activity, such as walking, running, or climbing stairs
- Swelling, which occurs because of inflammation and may make the knee painful to the touch
- Knee locking, which means it may be difficult to bend or fully extend the joint
A knee meniscus tear and knee osteoarthritis affect different types of cartilage in the knee:
- Knee osteoarthritis refers to damage to articular cartilage. Articular cartilage is tough, slippery material that covers and protects the bottom of the thighbone (femur), the top of the tibia (shin bone), and back of the knee cap (patella).
- A torn meniscus refers to damage to a rubbery, flexible piece of cartilage that provides cushioning between the thigh bone and shine bone in the knee.
Below you’ll find a few questions to ask yourself when determining the cause of knee pain, however, a visit to a health care professional is the best way to get an accurate diagnosis.
When did the pain start?
The biggest difference between arthritis and a torn meniscus is whether the pain developed over time or following an injury.
- If your knee pain increases gradually and cannot be placed back to a specific injury you may have arthritis.
- If your knee pain arose suddenly, you may have a meniscus tear. Athletes, especially those who play soccer, football, or basketball, are more likely to experience the type of injuries that cause meniscus tears.
It is possible for a meniscus to break down slowly, but this is less common.
What does the pain feel like?
Another difference between arthritis and a torn meniscus is how the pain feels.
- People with osteoarthritis often report an intermittent, dull, or aching pain. The breakdown of cartilage may cause the bones to grind against each other when moving, which can cause a feeling of stiffness or produce a crunching sound.
- People with a torn meniscus often complain of sharp, immediate pain following an injury. The pain may go away with rest and return again with movement, especially the same type that caused the injury. Tenderness to the inside or outside of the knee may indicate a meniscus tear.
See Knee Osteoarthritis Symptoms on Arthritis-health.com
Exactly how the pain feels will be determined by the severity and location of the arthritis damage or meniscus tear.
Have you tried the Thessaly test?
A meniscus tear can be tested for by using a diagnostic exam called the Thessaly test. You can do this yourself while resting your hands on a counter or another person for support.
- Stand on the leg to be tested with your knee bent slightly (about 20 degrees). Bend your opposite knee behind you, so that your foot is off the floor.
- Keeping your foot planted, twist your body so your hips rotate back and forth 3 times.
If you experience a catching or locking feeling during the test, you may have a torn meniscus.
How old are you?
Age is not just a number when it comes to determining the cause of knee pain. Arthritis is a degenerative disease, meaning it is more likely to occur in older adults.
See What Is Knee Osteoarthritis? on Arthritis-health.com
A torn meniscus is a cartilage injury that can happen at any age, although more likely to occur in the younger, active, population.
Getting a diagnosis and treatment for knee pain
Whether you think you have knee arthritis or a torn meniscus, your best bet is to visit a health care professional for an accurate diagnosis and treatment. Early treatment can prevent your symptoms from worsening and, in some cases, help you avoid future surgeries.