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Meniscus Tear: Rehabilitation Exercises

Introduction

A meniscus tear is a common knee joint injury. How well the knee will heal and whether surgery will be needed depends in large part on the type of tear and how bad the tear is. Work with your doctor to plan a rehabilitation (rehab) program that helps you regain as much strength and flexibility in your knee as possible. Your rehab program probably will include physical therapy and home exercises.

Exercises that might be prescribed for rehab are listed here. Work with your doctor and physical therapist to design a program that will best help you reach your rehab goals.

Key points

  • A coordinated program of physical therapy and home exercises can advance healing in your knee and help you return to desired activities.
  • Building strength and flexibility in your knee and legs may help prevent future degeneration in your knee.
 

A meniscus tear is a common knee joint injury. Meniscus tears commonly occur during sports when the knee is twisted while it is partially flexed and the foot is firmly planted on the ground. But these tears are also common with normal movement in older people whose menisci (plural of meniscus) are worn down. The medial and lateral menisci of the knee are two crescent-moon-shaped disks of tissue (fibrocartilage) that lie between the ends of the upper leg bone and the lower leg bone that form the knee joint. The rubbery tissues act as shock absorbers between the upper and lower leg bones, evenly distributing the load across the knee and helping to keep the knee stable.

Symptoms of a meniscus tear depend on the size and location of the tear and whether other knee injuries occurred along with it. Pain at the inside of the knee can point to a tear to the medial meniscus. Pain at the outer side of the affected knee may point to a tear to the lateral meniscus.

  • Symptoms of a small tear include pain at the time of injury, with slight swelling over several days. You are able to walk and your pain is minimal. But your pain may get worse when you squat. Your symptoms usually go away within 2 to 3 weeks. But they may recur with bending or twisting.
  • Symptoms of a moderate tear include pain at the side or in the center of your knee, although you may still be able to walk. The swelling increases over 2 to 3 days, and your knee feels stiff. You may have sharp pain when twisting or squatting. The symptoms may diminish in 1 to 2 weeks. But they may recur with twisting or overuse if untreated. The pain may come and go for several months or a year or more if untreated.
  • Symptoms of a larger tear include pain, with swelling and stiffness that start right away. Or symptoms can get worse over 2 to 3 days. Your knee may catch, pop, or lock, and you might not be able to straighten your knee. It might also feel "wobbly" or unstable, or it might give way without warning.

Treatment of a meniscus tear depends upon the size, type, and location of the tear, your age, your health status and activity level, and when the injury occurred. Treatment options include:

  • Nonsurgical treatment with rest, ice, compression, elevation, and physical therapy. This may include wearing a temporary knee brace.
  • Surgical repair to sew the tear together.
  • Surgical removal of the torn section (partial meniscectomy). Total meniscectomy, which removes the entire meniscus, is typically avoided because of the increased risk for osteoarthritis.

Test Your Knowledge

A meniscus tear may result in long-term injury to your knee.

  • True
    This answer is correct.

    The menisci are very important to the health of your knee. Acting as shock absorbers, they stabilize the knee joint and evenly distribute the load across the knee.

  • False
    This answer is incorrect.

    The menisci are very important to the health of your knee. Acting as shock absorbers, they stabilize the knee joint and evenly distribute the load across the knee.

  •  

Continue to Why?

 

The goals of rehabilitation (rehab) are to restore range of motion, strength, and endurance of your knee. A rehab program usually includes treatment with a physical therapist at a therapy center and home treatment in your home or at a gym or health club. Your physical therapist will design a program that guides you through exercises to reach your rehab goals. Your rehab schedule takes into account your health status, age, and activity expectations. In general, as you see less of your therapist, you do more on your own.

Recovery from a meniscus tear depends on many things. If the tear is minor and your symptoms go away, your doctor may recommend a set of exercises to increase your flexibility and strength.

If you have surgery to repair your meniscus, your surgeon may recommend that you do not move your knee more than absolutely necessary (immobilization) in the days after surgery. This may be followed by a period of limited motion before you are able to resume daily activities. Some doctors believe that it helps to begin a physical therapy and exercise program soon after surgery. Others believe that heavy stresses, such as running and squats, should be postponed for some months. Physical therapy that is guided by your doctor and designed for your individual needs is a key part of regaining strength and flexibility in your leg and helping prevent future degeneration in the knee joint.

Test Your Knowledge

Rehab is not important after meniscus tear surgery.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    Rehab is a key part of not only regaining strength and flexibility in your leg but also helping prevent future degeneration in the knee joint.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    Rehab is a key part of not only regaining strength and flexibility in your leg but also helping prevent future degeneration in the knee joint.

  •  

Continue to How?

 

For most tears, some simple exercises can help maintain muscle strength in the front of the thigh (quadriceps), back of the thigh (hamstrings), calf, and hip. All of these areas are important for your overall leg function while your knee heals after an injury or after surgery. Exercises should only be done on the advice of your doctor and only if you feel very minimal or no pain while you do them at home. The list below has links to specific exercises with pictures and instructions.

Test Your Knowledge

In exercising my knee, I should do all the necessary repetitions, even if I feel increasing pain.

  • True
    This answer is incorrect.

    The goal of rehab is to heal and strengthen the tissues, muscles, and tendons around the knee. Pain is a signal that you may be injuring your knee further. Stop any exercise if you feel anything more than minimal pain.

  • False
    This answer is correct.

    The goal of rehab is to heal and strengthen the tissues, muscles, and tendons around the knee. Pain is a signal that you may be injuring your knee further. Stop any exercise if you feel anything more than minimal pain.

  •  

Continue to Where?

 

For more information about rehabilitation for a meniscus tear, talk to:

  • Your doctor.
  • A sports medicine specialist.
  • A physical therapist.
  • An occupational therapist for work-related activities.

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Credits

By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer William H. Blahd, Jr., MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Patrick J. McMahon, MD - Orthopedic Surgery
Last Revised September 10, 2012

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