Rose is no stranger to knee trauma, already having suffered a torn left ACL (May 2012) and 2 distinct right meniscus tears (November 2013, February 2015).
Before analyzing his performance throughout his injury history or jumping to conclusions about his upcoming recovery, it’s important to understand the nitty-gritty of what his knees are going (and have already gone) through.
Although meniscal tears are pretty common amongst basketball players at any level, there is a lot of obscurity surrounding a meniscus’ function, what causes it to tear, and what a consequent operation entails.
When you hear ‘torn ACL’, you instinctively think of the shock, the pain, and the long recovery associated with it. You think of the awkward step a guy took on a non-contact change of direction. You think of the audible ‘pop’, followed by shrieks of agony, followed by the necessity of assistance just to walk off the floor.
When you hear ‘torn meniscus’, however, it’s natural to limit the actual severity of it. The recovery is much shorter, and the pain is typically much less. It’s usually not as noticeable of an occurrence. Some players even choose to play on a torn meniscus.
What even is the meniscus?
The meniscus in not a ligament (like the ACL, MCL, PCL, LCL, or patellar ligament), nor is it a tendon (like quadriceps tendon). It doesn’t connect bones to other bones, nor does it connect bones to muscles. It doesn’t serve much of a purpose in solely enhancing stability or preventing unwanted mobility.
To be blunt, it really isn’t even needed for day-to-day activity. But when you’re an NBA player who spends day after day and year after year running, jumping, and cutting, this small cushion of cartilage that sits between the bones in your knee joint is unquestionably essential.
Each knee has 2 menisci (lateral and medial), and they act as shock absorbers, working to disperse your weight and your physical load evenly across the most weight-bearing joint in your body. They also protect the other (more delicate) form of cartilage – called articular cartilage – that covers the end of your bones and helps them move freely against each other.
For high-impact athletes, meniscus tears often accompany ligament tears – or single, isolated blows to the knee. More commonly, and (likely) in Derrick Rose’s most recent case, the meniscus can tear gradually, after an elongated period of ‘wear and tear’. Whether it was his body mechanics, certain repeated motions, or a combination of these factors, too much strain was put on his knee joint, causing its ‘shock absorber’ to finally bust.
Ok, so how what happens when you tear your meniscus? What are your options?
Depending on the severity of the tear, you have a few routes you can take on your road to recovery. As mentioned earlier, some players choose to just play on their torn meniscus, if it’s minor enough. This isn’t typically recommended, however, since the likelihood of it tearing further skyrockets once it’s already torn.
In most cases, doctors prefer to repair the torn portion by stitching it back together. This method requires a longer recovery (usually 4-6 months), but it is the most successful and durable option due to the preservation of the cartilage. Nothing is guaranteed, though – Derrick Rose had his first meniscal tear repaired, and ended up tearing that same meniscus a second time.
If the tear occurs in the inner part of the meniscus, or the tear is the result of sheer deterioration, the only option you have is to remove the portion that is torn because these areas don’t heal well. Unsurprisingly, Rose’s second meniscal operation ended up being a partial meniscus removal. This procedure isn’t favored in the long-run – the absence of this padding mechanism heightens a player’s risk for a lot of chronic issues, including arthritis in the knee.
Why is this relevant to Rose’s newest injury?
Dwyane Wade, another NBA player who has suffered his fair-share of knee complications, had his meniscus partially removed in 2002. Over a decade later, he stated that he would have preferred to have his meniscus repaired, going as far to say that this minor surgery in college was actually the root of his lingering issues. His partial meniscectomy eventually led to loss of articular cartilage, bone bruising, excessive fluid build-up, and arthritis.
These resulting symptoms can be managed, but never improved upon. ‘Managed’ is being used loosely here, too. It requires hours before and after every practice, every game, every individual workout, and the like, to both prepare (heat, stretch, inject with steroids) and recover (ice, compress, treat with anti-inflammatories) an arthritic knee. Additional rehabilitation is required, daily. Oh – and the pain never really goes away.
The underlying condition of Wade’s knees is stagnant, until he dramatically reduces his activity level and/or undergoes a partial or full knee replacement when he’s done playing. It’s incredible that Wade has put together the career he has, and that he is still playing at the level he is, but it’s no secret that the reality of his discomfort, combined with his age, has been reflected in his diminishing athletic capability on the court.
Russell Westbrook, on the other hand, suffered a torn meniscus in April of 2013, underwent a meniscus repair operation, and has had noticeably fewer chronic issues since. Not to mention, his on-court numbers have gotten, let’s say… better.
Derrick Rose is already experiencing in his right knee what Dwyane Wade has been experiencing for a good bulk of his professional career. And we haven’t even gotten into his full ACL repair in his left knee yet.
ESPN hinted at the condition of Rose’s current meniscus tear – this time, in his ACL knee (it’s pretty bad when you have to actually differentiate between a dude’s knees, rather than just refer to his ‘bad’ knee) – claiming that he’d be back in 2 months. What can be inferred here?
Another partial meniscus removal.
More cartilage corrosion.
More bone-on-bone action.
More persistent, inevitable pain.
It’s easy for players, coaches, and fans to stay in the moment when injuries take place – i.e., to have a sort of “he’ll be back in no time” mentality. Courtney Lee, after hearing news of Rose’s circumstances, stated:
“I feel for him a lot. That’s a quick-healing injury. I think, what is it, six, seven weeks? It could have been worse.”
Sure, it could have been worse. It could always be worse. But although Rose’s short-term obstacles may seem minor, he has no easy journey ahead of him when the bigger picture is considered. Long-term health is often ignored, from all perspectives. If he continues to play, and further, continues to injure himself, he’s going to struggle with a lot of activities that we often take for granted – walking, standing for long periods of time, taking the stairs, shooting hoops with his kid.
It’s unfortunate, because his determination to continue to get himself back is unquestionably admirable. Not a lot of guys have the heart or the selflessness to keep going, even when their bodies tell them not to. But that mindset is what gets them to this level – and in this case, it’s a blessing and a curse.