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What is Joel Embiid’s knee injury? Expert medical analysis on torn meniscus repair, recovery for 76ers star

The 76ers are working to adjust to life without Joel Embiid.

Days after the reigning MVP went down with a left knee injury, an MRI revealed that he suffered a meniscus injury. Varying reports detailed the specifics of Embiid’s injury, with language used indicating that it was a torn meniscus that involved a displaced flap.

Given the nature of Embiid’s injury and his standing as one of the NBA’s premier players, the focus immediately shifted to how his knee would be treated and what it meant for him in the short and long term. 

On Feb. 6, Embiid underwent a procedure on his knee and would be re-evaluated in four weeks, according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Details of the procedure were not disclosed, though the timeline provides an idea of what was done.

For a greater understanding of Embiid’s injury, The Sporting News reached out to medical expert Dr. Michael S. George of the KSF Orthopaedic Center in Houston, who explained some of the wording used in reporting and how different options to repair meniscus injuries impact recovery time.

The following analysis from George has been edited for clarity.

MORE: The widespread impact of Joel Embiid’s meniscus injury

Expert medical analysis on Joel Embiid’s torn meniscus

What is a lateral meniscus tear?

Joel Embiid has suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his left knee. He had previously suffered a lateral meniscus tear in his right knee during the 2021 NBA Playoffs.

A lateral meniscus is the flexible C-shaped cartilage in the lateral aspect of the knee that cushions the knee. The meniscus can tear in a variety of ways, and the treatment depends on the exact pattern of the tear.

What is a displaced flap of the meniscus?

According to Shams Charania, the tear involves a displaced flap. Sometimes a torn flap of the meniscus can get stuck in the notch of the knee and cause painful locking. When a large torn flap is still attached at its periphery but flips in and out of the notch of the knee it is called a bucket handle tear.

What is the difference between a meniscal repair and a partial meniscectomy?

If a large healthy portion of the meniscus is torn and still has good blood supply, the meniscus can be repaired with sutures. This is called a meniscal repair.

If the portion of the meniscus that is torn either involves an area with poor blood supply or is shredded to the point where it cannot be repaired with sutures, then the tear is treated by removal of the torn portion which is called a partial meniscectomy.

There can also be an anatomic variation of the meniscus called a discoid meniscus, where the meniscus is abnormally disk-shaped and can tear easily. Discoid meniscus tears are also usually treated with partial meniscectomy.

In all patients and especially in young athletes, every effort is made to preserve as much of the meniscus as possible, while still respecting the repairability of the tissue. Often the necessary treatment only becomes clear during the surgery when the meniscus can be directly visualized using the arthroscope.

How does treatment impact recovery time?

The difference in the length of recovery between meniscus repair and partial meniscectomy is substantial.

In the meniscus repair, the sutured tissue has to heal before resuming high-level activities, so the recovery is four to six months. Unfortunately, sometimes the repaired meniscus does not heal and additional procedures may be necessary.

In contrast, the recovery after a partial meniscectomy is much more predictable as the patient can walk without crutches immediately and return to the court in four to six weeks. So it is possible that Embiid would be able to return to the 76ers before the playoffs, but it will depend on the repairability of the meniscus.

Regardless of the specific type of treatment, Embiid would eventually be expected to make a full recovery.

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