Should I have meniscus surgery? Should I have another meniscus surgery for continued pain after surgery? 

Ross A. Hauser, MD., Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C.

Many people who contact our office are in a decision-making process. The decision is to get a meniscus surgery, or, get some type of non-surgical treatment. Many times when we initially discuss meniscus surgery options with people interested in treatment, we ask them if they know what type of surgery are they going to get, total meniscectomy, partial meniscectomy, or suture repair? Many times they do not know because the surgeon told them they themselves do not know what they are going to have to do until they “get in there.”

In this article we will discuss:

Arthroscopic surgery with partial meniscectomy

In the research below you will see that this surgery is fraught with many long-term problems including an increased risk of disabling osteoarthritis. However, many people do have successful procedures.

Arthroscopic surgery with partial meniscectomy

A review of arthroscopic meniscus surgery

Dr. Kavyansh Bhan of the Department of Trauma and Orthopaedics, Whipps Cross University Hospital, London published this June 2020 review of surgical treatment  in the medical journal Cureus. (1)  “Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy (APM) is currently the most performed orthopedic procedure around the globe. However,  recent studies have conclusively shown that outcomes after an Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy are no better than the outcomes after a sham/placebo surgery. Meniscal repair is now being touted as a viable and effective alternative. Meniscal repair aims to achieve meniscal healing while completely avoiding the adverse effects of partial meniscectomy.  It is now increasingly recommended to attempt meniscal repair in all repairable tears, especially in young and physically active patients. Partial Meniscal implants have also shown excellent outcomes in long-term studies, but its efficacy in acute settings still requires further research. Research performed on various techniques of meniscal regeneration looks promising, and regenerative medicine appears to be the way forward.”

In this article, we will focus on meniscus surgery and for those who already had the surgery, post-meniscus recovery. We will explore why some patients may have continued or worsening knee problems after meniscus surgery and subsequent treatment recommendations. Many people have successful meniscus surgeries. These are typically not the people we hear from. We hear from the people whose surgery did not meet hoped-for results.

Getting in there, the arthroscopic meniscus and knee clean-up surgery

Many times we will hear from people that when the doctor gets into his/her knee, they will “clean things up” and get these people back on their way. The clean-up procedure is usually recommended to someone who in the past has “fought through” knee pain, had past injuries without standardized treatments including surgery, and has recently done something to aggravate their knee. Many of these people will likely require some type of surgical procedure if they can no longer bend their knee or walk without significant pain. However, many people are not recommended for surgery because their knee is already in wear and tear degenerative state and the surgical procedure may accelerate the person’s knee osteoarthritis. The patient can in some instances be stuck in the “rock and a hard place scenario.” Get the surgery and accelerate the knee osteoarthritis, don’t get the surgery, and figure out some other types of treatments. All during this time the person figures out clever ways to get in and out of chairs, beds, and cars without significant pain while doing so. At some point, for many people, something needs to be done and that something is surgery.

The first half of this article is going to concentrate on a common patient concern. “My MRI says.” We sometimes find that a patient is led to believe that surgery is the only option for them because of what the “MRI said.”

The rush to MRI. Is an MRI really necessary? Whatever your MRI says, you may get surgery anyway.

We probably cannot even count the number of emails we received in the last few years that begin like this:

I had an MRI

This is what my MRI says: Radial tear poster medial meniscus, degeneration fraying medial meniscus, moderate bone contusion medial tibial plateau with degenerative changes, moderate bakers cyst. My doctor says I should get a clean-up on my knee.

I had an MRI I have another tear

I had arthroscopic knee surgery for a torn meniscus. I just had an MRI and I have another tear in my meniscus. Now they tell me I am developing arthritis as well. I need more surgery. I am not sure I want or even need more surgery. Are non-surgical options available to me?

I had an MRI, I had surgery, now I have more pain

I had a meniscus repair surgery about six months ago. Soon after the surgery, I started experiencing terrible pain. I cannot work like this. I had another MRI and I am being told to have more surgery. Are non-surgical options available to me?

Sometimes we simply get a cut and paste of the person’s MRI report. MRI reports can be helpful but people with “terrible” MRIs have little knee pain. People with good MRIs have terrible pain. It is just as important to understand the person’s full situation, to know how someone feels today, what type of pain did they have when they woke up, what makes it worse as it is to get an MRI report.

For most people, you cannot get a surgical recommendation for a meniscus tear without an MRI justifying a meniscus tear significant enough to get a surgical recommendation.

For most people, you cannot get a surgical recommendation for a meniscus tear without an MRI justifying a meniscus tear significant enough to get a surgical recommendation. It is often said that if you want surgery, get an MRI. What you are going to read below will take this idea one step further, if the MRI cannot tell if you need surgery, you may want to get surgery to see if you needed surgery. We will show you the studies.

(Lack of) “Diagnostic Accuracy of Magnetic Resonance Imaging in the Detection of Type and Location of Meniscus Tears”

That is the title of a February 2021 study published in the Journal of Clinical Medicine. (2) How the study ended was with a suggestion that if you really wanted to know how much damage there was to a patient’s meniscus or their knee capsule, you should go in and see for yourself during an arthroscopic procedure because many times the MRI is not helpful. Let’s let the doctors of the study speak for themselves. First, this is why they did the study:

“Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) has been widely used for the diagnosis of meniscal tears, but its diagnostic accuracy, depending on the type and location, has not been well investigated. We aimed to evaluate the diagnostic accuracy of MRI by comparing MRI and arthroscopic findings.”

Next, this is what they found out:

What the researchers here did was to compare MRI findings with arthroscopic findings in the same patient to determine if the MRI detected the presence, type, and location of meniscus tears later revealed in an arthroscopic procedure. They also looked at a group of patients who had ACL injuries with meniscus tears to see if the meniscus tears showed up on MRI in the same manner that they were discovered during the ACL reconstruction surgery.

The researchers also excluded some patients from the study as not being good study candidates. This would include people who had degenerative arthritis. Degenerative arthritis makes it difficult through imaging, to understand the type and extent of the meniscus tear on MRI.

What the researchers revealed at the end was MRI is limited in understanding the scope of a meniscus injury. To quote: “MRI could be a diagnostic tool for meniscus tears, but has limited accuracy in their classification of the type and location.”

Waiting until the arthroscopic procedure to figure out what type of surgery I am getting. My MRI was not helpful.

Why do your doctors want to “get in there” and see what is going on? Because your MRI may be leading you down a poor treatment choice path. An April 2021 paper in the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Surgery (3) suggested while “Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) is commonly used for diagnosis and as a research tool, but its accuracy is questionable.” They further wrote that the goal of their study was to compare the accuracy of knee MRI with clinical (in surgery) assessment for diagnosing meniscal tears and to determine the accuracy of MRI for grading chondral lesions. What did they find? “MRI has relatively poor correlation with arthroscopic findings for grading the chondral damage and was less accurate than clinical assessment for the diagnosis of lateral meniscal tears.”

MRI recommendation to arthroscopic surgery should be questioned

In the above study, researchers looked to see if an MRI was as accurate as direct observation in an arthroscopic procedure. The answer was no. Doctors should consider arthroscopic surgery as the best diagnostic tool in some cases of knee pain from a suspected meniscus injury.

A group of physical therapists, based on responses from the patients they see suggest that doctors can be a little too enthusiastic in promoting an arthroscopic surgery where one may not be needed. This is what the physical therapist wrote in the peer-reviewed journal Musculoskeletal Science & Practice (4).

“Current clinical practice guidelines for degenerative meniscal tears recommend conservative management yet patients are frequently referred to the consultant orthopaedic surgeon despite a lack of evidence for the use of arthroscopy.”

The controversy over the value of knee MRI in meniscus diagnosis has been ongoing. Taking the other side of the argument a 2018 (5) study suggested that “MRI could effectively demonstrate imaging features of medial and lateral meniscal root tear and its accompanying signs. It could provide the basis for preoperative diagnosis of clinicians, and be worthy to be popularized.”

I had a meniscectomy in 2020 after suffering two previous meniscus tears. The surgeon shaved part of the torn meniscus and cleaned up any loose tissue. I followed up surgery with 12 months of physical therapy with a sports injury specialist. I am a very active person and play multiple sport. 

I have felt continuous pain since the surgery and have never really recovered. I have gained weight because of my inactivity. My knee pain recently increased dramatically causing me to have an MRI and X-ray scans. My doctors says that it is the meniscus, it is degenerating and I will need to stop my physical activity as it is straining my knee as well as lose weight and eventually have another surgery on my meniscus. For the time being, I was given a cortisone shot in my knee joint to reduce the pain.

The problem of pseudotears

A February 2021 study in the medical journal Arthroscopy (6) examined why MRI readings were often inaccurate when it came to interpreting whether there was an actual tear or not of the anterior horn of the lateral and medial meniscus. What these researchers examined was the phenomena of pseudotear, the appearance of a meniscus tear that is not there.

Peter R. Kurzweil, M.D. is an orthopedic surgeon. He is an editorial reviewer for the journal Arthroscopy. This is what he wrote in response to this study’s observations: (7)

Editorial Commentary: False-Positive Meniscus Pseudotear on Magnetic Resonance Imaging: A False Sign That Rings True

“The false-positive finding of anterior horn meniscus (pseudo)tear on magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) is an important finding of which to be aware. We have recently seen awareness similarly raised regarding root tears of the meniscus, which, if overlooked, could have detrimental consequences. Manifestations of the MRI finding of meniscus pseudotear arise from the variability of the insertion of the transverse geniculate ligament into the anterior horn of the lateral meniscus. Bearing in mind that anterior knee pain is a common reason that patients present for an orthopaedic and sports medicine evaluation, the understanding that this MRI finding does not represent a true meniscus tear may save patients from unnecessary arthroscopic surgery.”

The hard to find Ramp Lesion in an ACL deficient knee

For those of you reading this article, and you had an acute ACL tear or you had previous ACL surgical repair and were diagnosed with a “ramp lesion” you should understand that ramp lesions are vertical or longitudinal tears of the peripheral capsular attachment (the meniscus’ outer edge attachment) of the posterior horn of the medial meniscus at the meniscocapsular junction. (Simply an anchor that keeps the meniscus from floating around in the knee). It is often considered a minor injury and is especially suspected in ACL deficient or compromised knees.

This injury is often difficult to detect on MRI. 

A July 2021 study in the journal Skeletal Radiology (8) suggests MRIs can only offer “moderate accuracy.” Here are the summary learning points:

This next part sounds like an MRI report. If you had a suspected meniscus tear it may sound like your MRI report.

Here is a point. This MRI report-sounding description appears detailed and in-depth. It is giving a picture of what is happening in the knee. Or is it?

Another study: A physical examination just as good as an MRI. So is it important to have an MRI report relating the different types of meniscus tears you may have? No, not if you are trying to avoid surgery.

If you have decided to try to avoid surgery, an MRI may not be needed. In a May 2020 study in the journal Advances in Orthopedics,(9) one of the Advances doctors was looking for ways to best diagnose a meniscus tear. To find this answer the researchers of this study looked at patients who were already deemed surgical candidates because of meniscal or cruciate ligament tears. Just before these patients had knee surgery the patients had an MRI and a physical examination. The researchers then wanted to compare the MRI reading interpretation and the results of the physical examination to what they saw during the surgery.

So what is it that a doctor should look for in a physical examination?

If you decide to forego the MRI because you want to avoid a surgical recommendation, then what is it that your doctor should be looking for in a physical examination?

We are going to present a brief video that explains the concept of knee instability and how it impacts your pain and function in a meniscus-damaged knee.

A brief video on knee instability and a bulging meniscus – the many types of meniscus tears may have ligament damage as a common factor

Should I have another meniscus surgery?

We offer a non-surgical option for meniscus repair and that is why people reach out to us. It is probably the reason you arrived at this article now. To see if our non-surgical option may be an option to your meniscus surgery recommendation. We do understand that there are instances where someone will consider that they have no choice but to have surgery. They are active people whose knees lock up and are acutely painful on movements. The meniscus problem is interfering with their ability to work, participate in sports or simply have a decent quality of life. For some people, meniscus surgery will be successful. The point of this article however is what is the long-term cost of meniscus surgery in terms of knee function and pain? Secondly, if non-surgical options can deliver success equal to or better than surgical intervention.

Another of the most common calls our office receives involves patients who have had part or all of their meniscus removed and are now suffering from continued pain or arthritis as a consequence of the meniscus or multiple meniscus surgeries they had.

This is reflected in the types of emails that we get from people looking for help. They go something like this:

I have severe osteoarthritis in both knees. I have had meniscus surgery on both knees. Every day I live with severe pain and swelling in both of my knees. I am told only knee replacements will help me now. I do not want any more surgery. I feel that it is the meniscus surgeries that put me in this position.

I have had meniscus surgery on each knee. X-rays and MRIs show major arthritis in each knee. I can’t walk for longer than an hour without my knees swelling and being so painful I can’t walk anymore. I just turned 50, I do not want to even consider knee replacement without trying everything first

Again, some people do benefit from meniscus surgery in the short-term and near future. It is these recent surgical success patients that we do not see in our clinic. Who we see are the people, who already had meniscus surgery and their knee is causing them problems, or people who do not want a meniscus surgery at this time because of upcoming sports seasons, competitions, or simply, they need to work and there is a waiting list to get the surgery.

This article will focus on the research surrounding meniscus surgery. If you would like to focus on treatment plans please visit our articles

Knee Arthroscopy

The middle-aged patient and meniscus surgery – surgeons cannot predict which patients will benefit and who will not benefit from meniscus surgery. Flipping a coin would work just as well.

A March 2020 study in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (10) questioned whether experienced orthopedic surgeons could predict who would benefit from surgery for degenerative meniscus tears and who would not.

The researchers set up an experiment. Surgeons participating in this study were given 20 cases to examine. In each case, the surgeon was asked to predict the outcome of treatment for meniscal tears by arthroscopic partial meniscectomy and exercise therapy in middle-aged patients. The surgeons were also asked to predict the beneficial change in knee function in those patients they would recommend to surgery and those patients they would send to physical therapy or an exercise program.

The surgeons combined to examine and predict outcomes in 3880 knees. The results?

Results: Surgeons making a successful meniscus surgery prediction and a coin toss. The chance was equal.

Typically when patients decide whether to have surgery or not they typically do not toss a coin. Probably some do because they do not have enough information to make a more educated assessment of their chances of having a successful surgery or having equal success with non-surgical options.

So here are the results of this study. Remember a surgeon was asked to look at 20 patient profiles and make a recommendation for surgery or no surgery. The 20 patients had already had surgery or exercise therapy and the successful results of their treatment had already been recorded. How did the surgeons do? They may as well have flipped a coin.

Here is what the study said:

Conclusions: Surgeons’ criteria for deciding that surgery was indicated did not pass the statistical examination. This was true regardless of a surgeon’s experience. These results suggest that non-surgical management is appropriate as first-line therapy in middle-aged patients with symptomatic non-obstructive meniscal tears.

Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy or physical therapy in the middle aged patient?

A July 2022 paper writes (11): “It is unclear whether the results of arthroscopic partial meniscectomy are comparable to a structured physical therapy.” The researchers of this review study then investigated the efficacy of arthroscopic partial meniscectomy in the management of symptomatic meniscal damages in middle aged patients. Using current available randomized controlled trials  which compared arthroscopic partial meniscectomy performed in isolation or combined with physical therapy versus sham arthroscopy or isolated physical therapy , the researchers found: “The benefits of arthroscopic partial meniscectomy in adults with degenerative and nonobstructive meniscal symptoms are limited.” Further they could not determine if arthroscopic partial meniscectomy or physical therapy offered superior results.

If you have been given the meniscus injury surgical recommendation, you have been told that you will get one of these three procedures.

One of the primary reasons for a meniscal operation is to improve joint stability, yet meniscectomy often appears to have the opposite effect, as it elicits even more instability, crepitation, and degeneration than the meniscus injury produced prior to operation. This is why reoperation rates after meniscectomy can be as high as documented in the research below.

The fourth procedure – knee microfracture surgery and cartilage implant surgery

The notion that replacing dead meniscus tissue, with a dead person’s meniscus (human allograft) or with synthetic meniscus (really meniscus replacement) is going to prevent osteoarthritis, as discussed in our article Alternatives to knee microfracture surgery and cartilage implant surgery is not realistic. By the time a person has a damaged meniscus, many other tissues in their joints are also affected including ligaments and tendons that provide stability when strong or provide instability when compromised. The whole knee joint needs to be treated not just the meniscus tear. The human meniscus is mobile, movable, stretchable, and made up of fibrocartilage, and has many functions including joint stabilization and the manufacturing of specific mediators of healing that go into the synovial fluid. None of these functions can truly be reproduced by any other type of meniscus besides the person’s own meniscus.

Although there is some short-term improvement after these surgeries in aspects such as pain control, the long-term effects of meniscectomy, meniscal repair, and meniscal allograft transplantation reveal that symptoms, such as pain and instability, will persist for years afterward.

What happens when all or part of the meniscus is removed? Joint instability is a common result of meniscectomy and so is pain after meniscectomy

Doctors at the Departments of Orthopedic Surgery and Biomedical Engineering at the University of California, Irvine teamed with the doctors at the Sports Medicine Institute, Hospital for Special Surgery, New York to assess what to do with the patient who had all or part of their meniscus removed. This is what they wrote in their November 2021 paper in the medical journal Cartilage. (11)

“Meniscus tissue deficiency resulting from primary meniscectomy or meniscectomy after the failed repair is a clinical challenge because the meniscus has little to no capacity for regeneration. Loss of meniscus tissue has been associated with early-onset knee osteoarthritis due to an increase in joint contact pressures in meniscectomized knees. Clinically available replacement strategies range from allograft transplantation to synthetic implants, including the collagen meniscus implant, ACTIfit (scaffold that is implanted in patients who have an intact meniscus rim), and NUSurface (an artificial meniscus). Although short-term efficacy has been demonstrated with some of these treatments, factors such as long-term durability, chondroprotective efficacy, and return to sport activities in young patients remain unpredictable. Investigations of cell-based and tissue-engineered strategies to treat meniscus tissue deficiency are ongoing.”

It has been suggested that the “quickest way for a person to get osteoarthritis is to have arthroscopic removal of their meniscus. There are many ways meniscectomy accelerates the osteoarthritis process through the structural wear of the articular cartilage.

Doctors at the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and The George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Washington, DC., described the problem of degenerative joint disease after meniscectomy in a September 2021 paper published in the Sports Medicine and Arthroscopy Review. (12)

“The meniscus has an important role in stabilizing the knee joint and protecting the articular cartilage from shear forces. Meniscus tears are common injuries and can disrupt these protective properties, leading to an increased risk of articular cartilage damage and eventual osteoarthritis. Certain tear patterns are often treated with arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, which can effectively relieve symptoms. However, removal of meniscal tissue can also diminish the ability of the meniscus to dissipate hoop stresses, resulting in altered biomechanics of the knee joint including increased contact pressures.”

What are we seeing in this image? Even the radiologist cannot determine whether the image he/she is seeing represents a recurrent meniscus tear or is just post-surgical changes.

As mentioned above, the patient will be told that they will eventually develop knee problems. The long-term side effect of meniscus surgery is that meniscectomies can worsen knee joint instability by negatively influencing other supporting knee structures by increasing contact stress on the cartilage. The knee’s house of cards will crumble thereafter as increasing contact stress on the cartilage, increases the risk and occurrences of chronic knee inflammation and accelerates the degenerative knee conditions that lead to knee joint erosion or irreversible joint damage to the knee.

Joint instability is a common result of meniscectomy, which is not surprising when considering that the meniscus is a primary stabilizing component of the knee. The knee meniscus provides maximum joint contact protection and thus, reduce the contact stresses on the load-bearing surface of the joint, much like a washer does to distribute the pressure of the nut or bolt evenly and to provide a smooth surface or a double rear wheel (four-wheel) truck distributes less pressure on each tire than a normal two rear wheeled truck.

Common physical symptoms of instability after meniscectomy are crepitation, such as cracking or popping and locking in the joint. On radiographic examination, this postoperative deterioration of the knee is evidenced by narrowing of the joint space between the thigh and shin bones or a flattening of the tibiofemoral surfaces.

Biomechanically, the development of osteoarthritis can in part be explained by the increased stress placed on the tibia and femur post meniscectomy. It is a known fact that reducing the size of the contact area on a surface increases pressure in the remaining area. Therefore, by removing part of or the entire meniscus from the knee, the area through which weight is transmitted in the joint is reduced, thus increasing the pressure on both the tibia and the femur and their articular cartilage.

In six reviews of randomized controlled trials, arthroscopic partial meniscectomy did not show clinically important benefit over conservative treatment for knee function and pain.

A July 2021 paper (13) published in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) by the United Kingdom’s National Institute for Health Research Bristol Biomedical Research Centre, University Hospitals Bristol and Weston NHS Foundation Trust, and the University of Bristol examined the clinical effectiveness of common elective orthopedic procedures compared with no treatment, placebo, or non-operative care and assess the impact on clinical guidelines. Among these elective procedures was arthroscopic partial meniscectomy.

In this examination of effectiveness, the doctors explored previously published research including review articles. A review article is a study where previous research is accumulated into one set of findings. Here is what these doctors found.

Accelerated breakdown of the articular cartilage between the femur and tibia and the patella and femur bones

How does this happen? Meniscectomy increases friction dramatically during motion by depriving the joint of the ability to lubricate the articular cartilage properly. This accelerates the breakdown of the articular cartilage between the femur and tibia and the patella and femur bones.  When these metabolically active articular cartilage cells degenerate faster than they can regenerate, the result is the accelerated breakdown (degeneration) within the joint. This is not a recently discovered phenomenon.

But why did these people have the surgery in the first place? Especially if they were told meniscus surgery could accelerate and cause irreversible knee damage?

It is the patient’s belief that the surgical removal of the whole or part of the meniscus will restore function and lessen their pain.

It can be difficult to tell a patient to have patience when their knee hurts. Most of the time when someone comes into our clinic for the first time they will report on the characteristic symptoms of meniscus related knee problems:

It is also difficult to convince an athlete that meniscus surgery may prevent them from returning to sports altogether. At this point, we will introduce the research from surgeons as a second opinion to our statements.

When you remove the meniscus you remove vital knee lubrication

One of the most vital but lesser-known roles of the meniscus is to provide lubrication to the knee, which it accomplishes through diffusing (spreading out) synovial fluid across the joint. Synovial fluid provides nutrition and acts as a protective measure for articular cartilages in the knee. The femoral condyle of the thigh bone in the knee is covered in a thin layer of articular cartilage, which serves to reduce emotional friction and to withstand weight-bearing. This cartilage is very susceptible to injury both because of its lack of proximity to the blood supply and the high level of stress placed on it by excessive motion. The meniscus, therefore, is able to provide a much-needed source of nutrition to the femoral and tibial articular cartilage by spreading fluid to that avascular area.

This illustration demonstrates the reasoning often given to patients that meniscus surgery is the only way.

This illustration demonstrates the reasoning often given to patients that meniscus surgery is the only way.  Menisci have two zones. The red zone is the meniscus’ outside zone the white zone is the inside zone. A red zone tear lies within the blood-rich portion of the meniscus. Where there is a blood supply there is healing as blood brings the healing and growth factors needed for wound repair.  The white zone meniscal tear is thought to be non-healing because there is no direct blood supply.  Many doctors do not believe the white zone meniscus tear can be repaired because of this. This is typically the part of the meniscus removed in meniscus surgery.

This illustration demonstrates the reasoning often given to patients that meniscus surgery is the only way.  Menisci have two zones. The red zone is the meniscus’ outside zone the white zone is inside zone. A red zone tear lies within the blood-rich portion of the meniscus. Where there is a blood supply there is healing as blood brings the healing and growth factors needed for wound repair.  The white zone meniscal tear is thought to be non-healing because there is no direct blood supply.  Many doctors do not believe the white zone meniscus tear can be repaired because of this. This is typically the part of the meniscus removed in meniscus surgery.

Surgeons suggest the reasons people come in for meniscus surgery is over expectation of what the surgery can really do for their knee problem

Doctors writing in The Journal of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (14) offer a very good rationale for why people still have meniscus surgery. Here are some talking points of the research:

Evaluating this data, one could imply that:

The risks of cortisone use pre-surgery

Most people that contact us already have a good understanding the frequent or long-term cortisone use has its challenges and risks.

In March 2021, research led by Rush University Medical Center and published in the journal Arthroscopy (16) found that patients who received knee injections within one month prior to knee arthroscopic surgery developed postoperative infections at twice the rate of those who did not receive an injection.

This of course relates to an injection increasing the risk for surgical infection. But what about the overall impact of corticosteroids on the meniscus?

Corticosteroid short-term success and long-term problems.

It is well understood by most medical professionals and their patients that prolonged and long-term corticosteroid injections for knee pain can break down cartilage including the meniscus. In 2017, doctors from Tufts Medical Center in Boston asked, “What are the effects of intra-articular injection of 40 mg of triamcinolone acetonide every 3 months on the progression of cartilage loss and knee pain in patients with osteoarthritis?”

Writing in the Journal of the American Medical Association, (JAMA) (17they published their answer:

“Among patients with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis, 2 years of intra-articular triamcinolone, compared with intra-articular saline, resulted in significantly greater cartilage volume loss and no significant difference in knee pain. These findings do not support this treatment for patients with symptomatic knee osteoarthritis.”

In February of 2020 a review study with the title “Medical Reversals in Family Practice: A Review,” (18) published in the journal Current Therapeutic Research, Clinical and Experimental offered these points:

Cortisone can thin out the meniscus.

In August of 2020 in the journal Scientific Reports (19) doctors expressed concerns about damaging the meniscus tissue with cortisone injections. It should be noted that this research’s main findings were that it was okay to get one cortisone injection. For many people, one injection would be considered safe. Here are the learning points of that research:

Patients undergoing arthroscopic meniscus surgery were too optimistic regarding their recovery time

There is a lure to surgery. We see it every day in our offices. The long-standing belief is that surgery will fix everything. A recent paper from the University of Southern Denmark (20) wrote:

Patients are too optimistic about the success of a meniscus repair – Failure of meniscal repair occurs in up to 25% of patients.

A January 2020 paper published in The Archives of Bone and Joint Surgery (21) offers this assessment of meniscus repair:

“Meniscus repair is not a small surgery without complication. It is technically challenging and has a steep learning curve. General complications of arthroscopy such as venous thromboembolism, infection, and vascular injury could occur. Specific complications including nerve injuries, ligamentous injury, iatrogenic cartilage lesions, and poor suture techniques can happen during the meniscal repair. The surgeon should depict and accept the eventual complications and address them as rapidly as possible. It is also important to form patients about potential complications. Failure of meniscal repair occurs in up to 25 % of patients.”

The surgical realities of meniscus tear surgery – the research

Between 2013 and 2016 – research began appearing questioning not only the value of meniscus surgery but whether or not the surgery caused more harm than good. Let’s start with a New York Times piece in 2016. The summary is below.

Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy versus Sham Surgery for a Degenerative Meniscus Tear – Surgery does not alleviate knee catching or knee locking after surgery

The research mentioned above and reported by the New York Times was not the first time the meniscus surgery controversy was reported in the international media. On December 24, 2013, the New England Journal of Medicine published an article entitled “Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy versus Sham Surgery for a Degenerative Meniscal Tear.”(22)

Patients were randomly assigned to arthroscopic partial meniscectomy or sham surgery. Then a scoring system was designed to measure pain, symptom severity, and knee pain after exercise at 12 months after the procedure.

What they found was “In this trial involving patients without knee osteoarthritis but with symptoms of a degenerative medial meniscus tear, the outcomes after arthroscopic partial meniscectomy were no better than those after a sham surgical procedure.”

In other words, avoid the rush to a surgery that may not fix the patient’s reported problems.

Continuing forward, the lead researcher of this study Raine Sihvonen, MD published more papers on the problems of meniscus surgery.

In February 2018, in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases (23) Dr. Sihvoven and his fellow researchers noted that degenerative meniscus tear can be the result of knee osteoarthritis and not vice-versa: “(Our) results support the evolving consensus that degenerative meniscus tear represents an (early) sign of knee osteoarthritis, rather than a clinical entity on its own, and accordingly, caution should be exercised in referring patients with knee pain and suspicion of a degenerative meniscal tear to MRI examination or Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, even after a failed attempt of conservative treatment.

In other words, the meniscus tear is the result of knee osteoarthritis development. If you remove the meniscus you accelerate the knee osteoarthritis. We will discuss this further below.

In April 2016, Dr. Sihvonen and colleagues wrote in the Annals of Internal Medicine (24) that removing parts of the meniscus did not appear to relieve the symptoms of knee pain and knee locking in surgical patients. “Resection of a torn meniscus (cutting away tissue that cannot be sutured) has no added benefit over sham surgery to relieve knee catching or occasional locking. These findings question whether (these) mechanical symptoms are caused by a degenerative meniscus tear and prompt caution in using patients’ self-report of these symptoms as an indication for Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy.” In other words, avoid the rush to a surgery that may not fix the patient’s reported problems.

Many orthopedic surgeries in my opinion have a far worse outcome than patients anticipate primarily because they cannot return to the activities they love, such as running. When people have arthroscopy surgery I try to go over their surgical reports with them because often what they perceived as what was done with the surgery was not done and other things were done that were detrimental and they had no idea they were done.  I have never as far as known seen an orthopedic operative report that showed a real meniscus repair, where the meniscus was sewn together and that was it.  The typical report shows partial meniscectomy and no repair yet the patient believes it was a repair. Every arthroscopy report I have ever seen has findings that reveal osteochondral lesions, chondromalacia, meniscus degeneration, articular cartilage lesions ligament injury, and many others. Remember anyone can have decreased pain by doing less, and unfortunately, many people who receive orthopedic surgeries end up doing less.

Results also showed that meniscectomy did not provide better functional improvement than the nonoperative group

Earlier in 2013 research published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine showed what little value meniscectomy has. Researchers compared meniscectomy to nonoperative treatment for meniscus tears. (25)

At the two-year follow-up, there was no difference in pain relief, improved knee function, or patient satisfaction. Results also showed that meniscectomy did not provide better functional improvement than the nonoperative group.

But what was the difference between these two groups? One group of patients underwent invasive surgery, had tissue removed, and will likely experience long-term meniscus degeneration.

In fact, most surgical meniscus treatments have, “all have a high long-term failure rate with the recurrence of symptoms including pain, instability, locking, and re-injury. The most serious of the long-term consequences is an acceleration of joint degeneration.”

In research from May 2016, (26) doctors warned that the role of arthroscopic partial meniscectomy in reducing pain and improving function in patients with meniscal tears continues to remain controversial and that studies show no difference between arthroscopic partial meniscectomy and non-surgical treatment. 

Meniscus surgery outcomes in American soldiers

Army physicians from the William Beaumont Army Medical Center and doctors from Rush University Medical Center published a March 2018 study in the Journal of Knee Surgery. (27)

It reports on how military surgeons dealt with meniscal injury. The report reveals findings on nearly 30,000 meniscus surgeries.

What are we to make of this?

Does meniscus surgery lead to knee replacement?

To save the knee, you must save the meniscus. A shift is occurring in meniscus surgery but it is just starting

In the July/August 2018 edition of the medical journal Sports Health,(28) surgeons at UCLA talked about the younger patient and why taking out meniscus tissue is really not optimal.

Here are the talking points:

Basically, surgeons need to repair and save the meniscus. They also need to figure out how to do it.

Why do we still perform meniscectomy?

The goal of meniscectomy was to reduce pain, restore knee function, and prevent the development of osteoarthritis. As surgeons had long believed that the meniscus was a “remnant” tissue and that it was not needed, it could be removed if damaged without a negative effect.

However, as medical research studied the long-term effects of this procedure, it became apparent in the medical community that meniscectomy was a primary cause of the sudden onset of knee osteoarthritis. The meniscus was, in fact, an important component of the knee.

The meniscus provides several vital functions including mechanical support, localized pressure distribution, and lubrication to the knee joint. They are made of thick fibrous cartilage that allows them to function as a shock absorber between the upper and the lower leg bones.

Doctors in France writing in the medical journal Orthopaedics & Traumatology, Surgery & Research, (29joined the growing list of doctors rallying under the banner “Save the Meniscus!”

This research asks the same question we do, Why do we still perform meniscectomy?

Why do we ignore a mountain of clinical and scientific evidence against meniscectomy?

They, like us, agree that it is high time that the paradigm shifted, in favor of meniscal preservation.

Now, let’s get back to the reasons why you may still be recommended for meniscus surgery. Surgeons strongly argue that there is validity to meniscectomy

Doctors in Germany (30) say that many of the studies critical of arthroscopic meniscus surgery are not 100% reflective of the patients they see. Medical research is broken up into levels of evidence. Level 1 is based on evidence which means a researcher took existing research and combined it into a review of the literature. Doctors and researchers grade this the lowest level of accredited research.

The German doctors say too much level 1 evidence is being offered as a generalization of meniscus surgery. The complaint is some surgeries will help some patients and that every meniscus surgery is not a bad surgery and this research is not reflective of that.

“The treatment of degenerative meniscal lesions should start with conservative management.”

The ESSKA guidelines also say the treatment of degenerative meniscal lesions should start with conservative management. In the case of persistent symptoms, surgery should be considered after 3 months. In the case of mechanical symptoms, arthroscopy might be indicated earlier.

They do say arthroscopy in advanced osteoarthritic knees is not indicated due to inferior clinical outcomes.

The complaint surgeons have is that some surgeries will help some patients and that every meniscus surgery is not a bad surgery and research is not reflective of this benefit.

In March 2020, (31) researchers announced a new study to answer this question. They write of their study:

“Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy after degenerative meniscus tears is one of the most frequently performed surgeries in orthopedics. Although several randomized controlled trials have been published that showed no clear benefit compared with sham treatment or non-surgical treatment, the incidence (numbers performed) of Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy remains high. The common perception by most orthopedic surgeons is that there are subgroups of patients that do need Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy to improve, and they argue that each study sample of the existing trials is not representative of the day-to-day patients in the clinic.”

The researchers of this study announced that they will seek to find “whether there are subgroups of patients with degenerative meniscus lesions who benefit from Arthroscopic partial meniscectomy in comparison with non-surgical or sham treatment.”

Short-term follow-up of meniscectomy has generated some positive results

Short-term follow-up of meniscectomy has generated some positive results; for example, a meniscectomy can provide temporary pain relief in the early stages following the operation, especially when an acute tear had caused excessive pain or popping preoperatively. Another immediate result may be a greater feeling of stability if the tear had previously been a source of instability or knee locking by catching between the tibia and femur. On long-term follow-up, however, these initial improvements have rarely been shown to last. Complete pain relief from meniscectomy is nearly unheard of after more than ten years and, at that point, more complex issues including a limited range of motion, radiographic degeneration, crepitation, and severe functional impairment have usually begun to surface.  In many cases, a simple meniscus tear, if operated on, can become a career-ending injury.

Arthroscopic meniscus surgery leads to a three-fold increase in the need for knee replacement and supper accelerated osteoarthritis.

Here we present a brief review of many of the papers published in recent years suggesting that meniscus surgery causes more harm than good in many patients.

November 2016: Research in the medical journal Orthopedics:(33)

The study’s doctors suggested that this information can help surgeons to counsel patients on the incidence of total knee replacement after knee arthroscopy and identify preoperative risk factors that increase risk.

Meniscus surgery causes super accelerated knee arthritis

Do these findings present anything really new? No, research has been ongoing telling patients and doctors of the risks associated with arthroscopic meniscus repair.

It is remarkable that studies more than a decade and a half old have issued the same warnings. In 2005, doctors in Canada audited the effectiveness of certain medical procedures found very poor quality evidence on the effectiveness of arthroscopic debridement of the knee with partial meniscectomy. (34)

The summary of these studies? If you have a meniscus surgery, chances are you will be disappointed in the outcome and then move on to an eventual knee replacement.

In research appearing in the medical journal Clinical Anatomy, doctors issued their report on a phenomenon of super-accelerated osteoarthritis in knees with meniscus tear damage and a history of surgical meniscus removal.

Coming out of Tufts Medical Center in Boston, the researchers noted that knee osteoarthritis is typically a slow, progressive problem; however, in some patients knees progressed to osteoarthritis with dramatic rapidity. However, clinicians cannot determine which patients may be at risk for accelerated knee osteoarthritis without knowing the incident structural damage that predisposes a knee to accelerated osteoarthritis. The Tuft researchers found that structural damage that is associated with accelerated knee osteoarthritis destabilizes and compromises the function of the meniscus or compromises the subchondral bone. (35) 

In an early study researchers from the Department of Orthopaedic Surgery at Carolinas Medical Center found that a damaged meniscus is the active participant in the development of knee osteoarthritis. In the study above, the relationship to bone damage is discussed, in this cited study the Carolinas Medical team found a strong association between meniscus damage and cartilage loss. (36) The two combined studies help confirm missing meniscal tissue contributes to bone and cartilage degeneration.

Even the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons was unable to come up with evidence to support the use of partial meniscectomy.

Meniscus removal throws the whole knee out of balance and damages other structures – the best way to prevent cartilage breakdown and knee osteoarthritis caused by meniscal surgery is to AVOID the surgery.

Doctors at the Hospital of Special Surgery found that meniscus removal, not only impacts the knee at the point of the surgery but throws the whole knee out of balance and leads to several points of cartilage deterioration. (37)

What is really remarkable is that researchers write paper after paper saying that removal of meniscal tissue in surgery causes advanced osteoarthritis and the procedures continue.

Clearly, the best way to prevent cartilage breakdown and knee osteoarthritis caused by meniscus surgery is to AVOID the surgery.

Clinical practice is moving away from treating meniscal tears in patients with osteoarthritis

Surgeons at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, University Hospital Llandough, and the University Hospital Wishaw in the United Kingdom published a February 2020 paper (38) in recommending to their fellow surgeons which patients with meniscus damage and osteoarthritis would be considered as good candidates for surgery. Here is what they said:

“Clinical practice is moving away from treating meniscal tears in patients with osteoarthritis unless there are mechanical symptoms. This study assessed the risk of needing further surgery for osteoarthritis in the five years following partial meniscectomy in different age groups and different grades of knee osteoarthritis.”

What these doctors did was to look at partial meniscectomies that were performed by the paper’s senior author during a 31-month period.  The range of follow-up was 3 to 5 years.


Conclusion: “(This) study shows that patients with no/mild osteoarthritis should be considered for  Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy. Patients with meniscal tears and severe osteoarthritis should be counseled on the outcomes and risks of further surgery after an Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy.

Here is a positive study on the benefits of meniscus surgery (39) in middle-aged patients: In this study, doctors said that an arthroscopic partial meniscectomy is a good option for a medial meniscal tear in late middle-aged adults. For the best success, you need a proper diagnosis and excellent surgical technique. If you follow these two rules all the patients could get good clinical results, HOWEVER, “there are some patients with motion restrictions in the early stage after the operation.” 

In other words, even if a patient received “a proper diagnosis and excellent surgical technique,” problems with motion restrictions in the knee developed early. Motion restrictions are probably not what a middle-aged patient is expecting as a result of their meniscus surgery.

In the above research we cited from Raine Sihvonen, MD in February 2018, in the Annals of the Rheumatic Diseases, it is noted that:

The meniscus can have a 90% tear and it will still figure out how to function

The meniscus has a very difficult time healing its own injuries because of a lack of vascularization to the entire meniscus. That is the blood that carries healing elements do not reach the entire meniscus. Because of this, the meniscus is a composite of different types of cells, superficially, those that can heal, those that can’t.

However, researchers at the University of Pennsylvania examining the meniscus’ complex mesh of fibers that run criss-cross to each other discovered that the two types of meniscus fibers, whose jobs are to absorb knee impact, the circumferential fibers and the radial tie fibers have a unique understanding of maintaining knee integrity in the event of meniscus injury.

They write: The meniscus is comprised of circumferentially aligned fibers (basically a mesh) that resist the tensile forces within the meniscus that develop during loading of the knee. Although these circumferential fibers are severed by radial meniscal tears, tibial contact stresses (the impact on the shin bone) do not increase until the tear reaches about 90% of the meniscus width, suggesting that the severed circumferential fibers still bear the load and maintain the mechanical functionality of the meniscus.

Note: The meniscus can have a 90% tear and it will still figure out how to function.

How it does this, is that the radial tie fibers, the perpendicular mesh network of the meniscus are helping to redistribute the knee load back to the severed but still functioning circumferential fibers.

Note: What does all this mean?

The study conclusion spells it out. “This finding supports the notion that radial tie fibers may similarly promote tear tolerance in the knee meniscus, and will direct changes in clinical practice and provide guidance for tissue engineering strategies.”(40)

Is there recovery time after arthroscopic meniscus surgery?

Some of the questions patients want to be answered when they compare non-surgical to surgical treatment of meniscus tears are:

While these numbers sound reasonable they are not for the patients in the long run. Non-surgical treatments such as comprehensive Prolotherapy typically and for a realistic expectation of treatment success are offered at about 6-week intervals and on average see results at the third treatment – anywhere from 12 – 18 weeks after the first treatment.

The difference is: While meniscus surgery can offer short-term goals the knee is in a downward spiral of joint instability to osteoarthritis to degenerative joint disease.

In Comprehensive Prolotherapy, the knee joint instability is restored by repairing and regenerating tissue

We use non-surgical treatments for meniscus tears. We may use our Prolotherapy treatments and PRP. This is an in-office injection treatment. This video and the summary below is an introduction to our non-surgical treatments. It is presented by Danielle R. Steilen-Matias, MMS, PA-C of Caring Medical Florida.

Platelet Rich Plasma Therapy and Prolotherapy, which stimulates tendons, ligaments, and cartilage to heal, has many advantages over arthroscopy, which include:

Do you have a question about meniscus surgery or need help?
Get help and information from our Caring Medical staff

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