A meniscal tear is a common injury. It can affect athletes who play individuals and team sports. It’s also common in people who have jobs that require lots of squatting, such as plumbers or construction workers. The physical therapists at Progressive Physical Therapy have extensive experience helping our patients manage this injury and, if surgery is required, help them prepare for the procedure and recover strength and movement afterward.
What is a meniscal tear?
The meniscus is a rubbery, C-shaped piece of cartilage that cushions your knee. Each of your knees has 2 menisci (plural of meniscus); one on the inner (medial) part of the knee, and the other on the outer (lateral) part. Together they act to absorb shock and stabilize the knee joint.
A meniscal tear typically is caused by twisting or turning quickly on a bent knee, often with the foot planted on the ground. Although meniscal tears are common in those who play contact sports, anyone at any age can tear a meniscus. When people talk about having torn cartilage in their knee, they usually are talking about a meniscal tear.
Signs and Symptoms
When you tear a meniscus, you might:
- Feel a sharp, intense pain in the knee area
- Feel a “pop” or a tearing sensation
- Have difficulty walking because of pain or a “catching” sensation
- Have difficult straightening the knee
- Experience swelling within the first 24 hours of injury
How can a physical therapist help?
Your doctor may diagnose a torn meniscus, but meniscal injuries can often be managed without surgery. A short course of treatment provided by one of our physical therapists at Progressive Physical Therapy can help determine whether your knee will recover without surgery. The physical therapist plays an important role by controlling pain and swelling and by restoring full strength and mobility to your knee.
To control pain and swelling, your physical therapist may use ice and compression and will likely instruct you in the use of these treatments at home. Swelling is an important “guide” during your rehabilitation and can indicate when you are doing too much. Let your physical therapist know if you have an increase in swelling so that your program or activity level can be modified.
Your physical therapist may use a treatment called neuromuscular electrical stimulation (NMES) to help improve your strength. Your therapist also will design special exercises to maintain your strength during recovery and help restore full movement to the knee. You will be given a home program of exercises that are specific to your condition.
As you recover, your therapist will advise you on ways to maintain your fitness and activity level and will help you decide when you are ready to return to full activity.
If You Need Surgery
Patients with more serious meniscal tears, or those that don’t respond to a course of physical therapy, may need surgery. Surgically removing the torn cartilage (a procedure called a menisectomy) usually is a simple procedure that requires a brief course of physical therapy treatment. Most people are able to return to their previous level of activity, including sports, in fewer than 2 months.
Following a simple menisectomy, your rehabilitation will likely be similar to that for nonsurgical injuries. Your physical therapist might use ice and compression to control pain and swelling and will show you how to use these treatments at home. Your therapist’s focus will be on helping you get back your strength and movement through special exercises performed in the clinic and at home. Generally, you will need to use crutches or a cane, but only until you can walk without pain or a limp.
Sometimes the surgeon will decide that the torn meniscus can be repaired, instead of removed. Research studies show that if a meniscal repair is possible, the long-term outcome is better than removal because the repair can reduce the risk of arthritis later in life.
Rehabilitation following a meniscal repair is slower and more extensive than with removal because the repaired tissue must be protected while it is healing. The type of surgical technique performed, the extent of your injury, and the preferences of the surgeon often determine how quickly you will be able to put weight on the leg, stop using crutches, and return to your previous activities.
After a meniscal repair, your physical therapist will help you control pain and swelling, help restore your strength, and help you regain full motion to the knee as soon as it is safe to do so. You’ll have a program of exercises to do at home, and this program will be advanced as you improve. A brace may be used to help protect the repaired meniscus during the recovery phase. These braces usually allow you to fully straighten the knee but will limit your ability to bend it all the way, in order to prevent stress to the repair.
Returning to Activity
Whether your torn meniscus recovered on its own or required surgery, your physical therapist will play an important role in helping you return to your previous activities. Your therapist will help you learn to walk without a limp and go up and down stairs with ease.
If you have a physically demanding job or lifestyle, your therapist can help you return to these activities and improve how you do them.
If you are an athlete, you may need a more extensive course of rehabilitation. Your therapist will help you fully restore your strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination to help maximize your return to sports and prevent reinjury. Return to sports varies greatly from one person to the next and depends upon the extent of the injury, the specific surgical procedure, the preference of the surgeon, and the type of sport. Your therapist will consider these factors when progressing your rehabilitation program and will work closely with your surgeon to help decide when it is safe for you to return to sports and other activities.