We reviewed 183 patients who had undergone reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament. The incidence of meniscal tears and degenerative change was assessed and related to the timing from injury to surgery. Degenerative change was scored using the French Society of Arthroscopy system. The patients were divided into an early (surgery within 12 months of injury) and a late group (surgery more than 12 months from injury). The late group was also subdivided into four groups of 12-month periods ranging from one year to more than four years after injury. There was a significantly higher incidence of meniscal tears in patients undergoing reconstruction after 12 months compared with those in the early group (71.2% vs 41.7%; p < 0.001). This was due to a large increase in medial meniscal tears in the late group. An increased incidence of degenerative change was also found in the late group (31.3% vs 10.7%; p < 0.001). Analysis of the subgroups showed that the incidence of meniscal tears and degenerative change did not differ significantly when surgery was performed after 12 months from injury. We conclude that reconstruction of the anterior cruciate ligament should be carried out within 12 months of injury to minimise the risk of meniscal tears and degenerative change.