While it depends on the type and severity of your injury, studies have indicated that physical therapy exercises can help a meniscus tear heal quicker. Learn what causes meniscal tears, how to treat them, and when weight-bearing rehabilitation can help them heal quicker.
What is a Meniscus Tear?
Menisci are pieces of wedge-shaped cartilage on either side of your knee caps, the medial meniscus and lateral meniscus. This spongy cartilage acts as a shock absorber and prevents your patella (knee cap), tibia (shin bone), and femur (thigh bone) from rubbing against one another. They also help even out the load on your knee joint while distributing lubricating fluid around the knee.
A meniscus tear happens when your upper leg rotates while the foot is planted, causing a twisting in the knee. It can also happen with an extreme bend, extension, or traumatic impact. The torn cartilage causes pain, swelling, and an inability to properly move the knee joint.
Meniscal tears are among the most common knee injuries for athletes. Sports that require lots of twisting and quick, jerking movements are the usual culprits. These include basketball, football, martial arts, dance, skiing, and volleyball.
However, athletes aren’t the only people who can sustain knee injuries. All it takes is one quick motion. It can be a jump, twist, or impact done while playing, walking upstairs, or getting into a car.
There are several types of meniscus tears, depending on the location and shape of the tear. Traumatic tears commonly occur in people from ages 10-45 while degenerative tears are more common in people over 40.
What are the Symptoms of a Meniscus Tear?
You may experience pain or feel a pop the moment you injure your knee; however, many people do not notice that they’ve injured their meniscus until the day or two after the incident. Pain is the primary indicator, though more severe tears can cause mobility issues.
If you are unsure of the seriousness of your injury, a healthcare professional can provide medical advice. He or she can do a physical exam or a knee MRI to determine the type of tear.
Pain and Swelling
The most noticeable symptoms of a meniscal tear are pain, stiffness, and swelling in the knee. Pain is commonly localized on one side of the knee and can worsen when you twist or squat down.
Impaired Range of Motion
Inability to move the knee through its full range of motion is another significant indicator of a torn meniscus. You cannot fully extend or bend the injured leg if this happens. In more severe cases, people will experience a buckling feeling when trying to put weight on the leg.
Locking or catching in the knee may signify an advanced meniscal tear. It will feel like your knee is sticking in a bent position. This happens because a torn piece of meniscus cartilage becomes stuck in the knee joint. If this happens, seek medical attention immediately.
Will Walking on a Torn Meniscus Make it Worse?
Generally speaking, “walking it off” can benefit meniscus tears. Research suggests that walking on a torn meniscus is no more likely to cause future knee issues than not putting weight on it. However, it will depend on the location and severity of your tear.
In most cases, light exercise- like walking- can promote healing by increasing circulation and building muscle strength. It can keep your knee cartilage lubricated by dispersing synovial fluid that reduces friction between articular cartilage.
Pain will be the primary determiner of what activities you can perform with a torn meniscus. Many people with moderate tears find that they can still walk, sit, stand, sleep, and even run without much discomfort. Your sports medicine doctor or therapist can evaluate how you walk and provide medical advice on improving your recovery process.
When Walking Can Help
Walking can help a torn meniscus heal faster. While you recover, stay active to prevent leg muscles from atrophying from disuse. A weakened quadriceps muscle can cause buckling and excess pain. Walking retains strength in your quads, hamstrings, and calves, and it can also help you regain strength after surgery.
One study found that both conservative and accelerated rehabilitation methods resulted in similar recovery rates, indicating that weight-bearing after the injury can help with knee health down the road.
If you do continue physical activity, take it slowly. Increase exercise intensity gradually and monitor your body for signs of distress. Can walking re-tear your meniscus? Not likely, but intense physical activity can cause further injury.
When to Rest and Be Cautious
If bearing weight on your affected leg causes severe pain, continued rest is the best course. Follow RICE protocol for a few more days before attempting weight on the knee.
Meniscus tears that cause locking or buckling should be treated with caution. These severe tears, like bucket handle or flap tears, may require surgery. If left untreated, they can cause future damage to the knee joint, like arthritis. If this is the case, you should avoid putting weight on the leg.
After surgery, your doctor will recommend a resting period. You may need to use crutches or a knee brace to provide stability while you heal.
When Can I Exercise Again?
It usually takes four to six weeks for a torn meniscus to heal enough to continue with your regular activities. These include daily activities like walking, getting in and out of the car, or going up and down steps.
However, it may be longer before you can get back to playing sports at full tilt. Sports that involve twisting motions- like basketball, dance, and soccer- can take longer to resume.
Ways to Help Your Meniscus Heal
While you wait for your body to repair itself, there are other measures you can take to help it along. Managing the pain and swelling is the first course of action. Once your injury has begun healing, you can start physical therapy to get your knee back to its pre-injury ability.
Whether it’s a torn ligament or a pulled muscle, RICE is often an effective initial treatment. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation. If you know that your injury is mild, for example, if you can still put weight on the leg with minimal pain, try RICE for a couple of days before visiting your doctor.
Giving your knee a little break will do it a big favor. Rest allows the muscle tissue to repair itself without being irritated. After tearing your meniscus, stay off of the injured leg for a day or two.
Cold therapy is used to control pain and reduce swelling in a knee injury. At the onset of your injury, apply ice for 15-20 minutes at a time every few hours.
Wearing a knee sleeve or ACE bandage while your meniscus heals can provide therapeutic compression. Compression reduces swelling in the joint by restricting blood flow and fluid buildup.
Try to find a couple of hours a day to sit back with your feet up. Raising your leg above your heart helps reduce blood flow to the knee and drain excess fluid from the joint. This can reduce knee pain and inflammation.
Over-the-counter pain medications can help manage the pain and swelling associated with a torn meniscus. These include medicines like acetaminophen, ibuprofen, naproxen, and aspirin. However, pain medications will not treat the meniscus tear or heal the torn cartilage.
Physical therapy can help regain full range of motion, strength, and knee stability during the recovery process. You can do it at home or with a physical therapist. While you should avoid any activity that involves pivoting or squatting, there are many physical therapy exercises you can perform to keep your leg muscles healthy. These include:
- Quadriceps presses
- Straight leg raises
- Donkey kicks
- Calf raises
Don’t put too much pressure on the injured leg when practicing physical therapy exercises. Gradually ease into increased workout intensity. Always warm-up, cool down, and rest between exercises to prevent aggravating the injury.
While wearing a knee brace will not directly heal your torn meniscus, it can help reduce pain, provide support, and reduce strain during physical activity. Knee sleeves offer compression and warmth that promote circulation and thus healing. Many people who have sustained a knee injury experience increased confidence when wearing a knee support.
The vascular area on the meniscus’s outer edge- called the red zone- has its own blood supply. When tears occur here, they have a higher likelihood of healing on their own. Tears in this region, like a horizontal tear, also respond well to surgery.
The inner white zone of the meniscus has a limited blood supply, thus cannot heal on its own. Tears that occur here, like radial tears, do not respond to surgical repair. Instead, the torn part must be removed.
During meniscal repair surgery, an orthopedic surgeon will cut small incisions in the knee and insert an arthroscope camera. This guides miniature surgical equipment that the surgeon uses to repair the tear. Surgeries that require the removal of damaged meniscus tissue are called partial meniscectomies. It can take six weeks to three months to heal from meniscus surgery.
A meniscus tear is a common injury for both athletes and non-athletes. While a chronic degenerative meniscal tear can only be managed, other types of meniscus tears can be healed with the proper balance of exercise and rest.
Surgery may be an option if non-surgical treatment is unsuccessful at healing a meniscus injury after three months. However, most healthcare professionals prefer a conservative approach to knee meniscal tears. This includes RICE, physical therapy, and knee support.
With a dedicated at-home treatment plan, you can get back to your old active ways in just a few weeks. If your body allows it, feel free to walk with a torn meniscus; just be easy on the knee and give it time to heal before getting back to your favorite sports.