Symptoms of a meniscus tear depend on the size and location of the tear and whether other knee injuries occurred along with it. Pain can also be due to swelling and injury to surrounding tissues.
With small tears, you may have minimal pain at the time of the injury. Slight swelling often develops gradually over several days. Many times you can walk with only minimal pain, although pain increases with squatting, lifting, or rising from a seated position. These symptoms usually go away in 2 to 3 weeks although pain may recur with bending or twisting.
In a typical moderate tear, you feel pain at the side or in the center of the knee, depending on where the tear is. Often, you are still able to walk. Swelling usually increases gradually over 2 to 3 days and may make the knee feel stiff and limit bending. There is often sharp pain when twisting or squatting. Symptoms may diminish in 1 to 2 weeks but recur with activities that involve twisting or from overuse. The pain may come and go over a period of years if left untreated.
Larger tears usually cause more pain and immediate swelling and stiffness. Swelling can develop over 2 to 3 days. Pieces of the torn meniscus can float into the joint space. This can make the knee catch, pop, or lock. You may not be able to straighten your knee. The knee can also feel "wobbly" or unstable, or give way without warning. If other injuries occurred with the meniscus tear, especially torn ligaments, you may have increased pain, swelling, a feeling that the knee is unstable, and difficulty walking.
Older people whose menisci are worn may not be able to identify a specific event that caused a tear, or they may recall symptoms developing after a minor incident such as rising from a squatting position. Pain and minimal swelling are often the only symptoms.
Pain at the inside of the knee can mean there is a tear to the medial meniscus. Pain at the outer side of the affected knee can mean there is a tear to the lateral meniscus.