The talk in soccer circles this week is the imminent return to action of Theo Walcott, the Arsenal and England star who damaged his knee back at the start of 2014. After 286 days of rehab, Walcott made a return to Arsenal's Under 21 team last week. This has left journalists salivating at finding out when he will be returning to the main team.
For a young professional sports person, nine months is a long time out of the game. For Walcott, missing out on this Summer's soccer World Cup in Brazil was perhaps more than just rubbing salt into the wound.
In issue 139 of Sports Injury Bulletin, I present a case study of a similar problem in a rugby player of identical age. This big lump of a kid ruptured his lateral meniscus in the knee -- a bit different to Walcott's ACL injury. However, this player also missed a big chunk of the season (17 weeks) and I had to live with his personal frustrations, and the yo-yo of daily emotions.
The piece shows the knee anatomy, details the types, clinical features and management of meniscus tears, and the required post-surgical rehabilitation.
On a recent Rehab Trainer course, one of the participants asked me what she should do about the small lateral meniscal tear in her knee. This is a bit like answering "how long is a piece of string?", as it depends on so many things.
But to wrap it up in a nutshell, the surgeon will use a set of criteria to determine if a meniscal tear needs repairing, removing, or to be left well alone.
The surgical criteria cover:
The younger the patient, the more comfortable surgeons are about operating. Often the small degeneration tears in older patients are just a precursor to a knee that is about to become arthritic. With older patients, many surgeons will try for rehab first.
This depends on what the knee has to do. If the patient does nothing but collect stamps all day and the knee does not bother them, then clearly the surgeon will want to leave it alone. But if the patient is an athlete with a repetitive catching and locking knee due to a meniscal tear, they will be more comfortable about operating.
3. Type of tear
Issue 139 of Sports Injury Bulletin details the types of tears we see in meniscus. In short, tears such as bucket handle tears do not do well without surgery, while small longitudinal tears can do well without surgery.
4. Location of tear
The outer portion of the meniscus has a nice, rich blood supply (hence, called the "red-red zone"). These areas can do well if left alone. Inner third zone tears (the "white zone") with no blood supply don't heal, so they need repairing or removing.
So, if the patient is lucky and fits the criteria for conservative management, or let's say they simply don't want surgery, then what options do we have to prevent the injury from getting worse?
Here are a few of my suggestions:
Avoid positions that catch the meniscus. For example, full squatting may catch the posterior horn of the meniscus and flare it up, so the patient has to learn to avoid these positions if possible.
Keep the quadriceps working. If the quads remain strong and active then the shearing effect of the tibia moving across the femur is reduced. This will limit the stress to the meniscus.
Watch for swelling. Regular assessments for a knee effusion (called a "fluctuation test") may need to be done a few times a week to make sure the knee stays dry. The knee's biggest enemy is an effusion as it shuts off the quads straight away.
Intervene if the knee has an effusion. Donut felt compression, regular icing, NSAIDS if indicated, needle aspiration if indicated. Avoiding an effusion at all costs is pretty important for any knee injury.