Meniscus Tear Exercises – Knee-deep in Recovery

Meniscus Tear Exercises – Knee-deep in Recovery

Dealing with meniscal tears can be a significant setback, whether you're an athlete or simply going about your daily routine. You have four menisci that grant you the everyday stability and agility you may have taken for granted until now. When a meniscus tear strikes, —it's a pivotal moment that calls for smart decisions, from recognizing the early symptoms to mastering the art of meniscus tear recovery exercises and physio. In this guide, CARE sheds light on recovering from a meniscus tear, equipping you with a science-based rehab program to support your journey back to full knee health.

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE
Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach

Published in Activity
7 min read · Mar 04, 2024

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What Is a Meniscus Tear?

Your meniscus is a C-shaped layer of cartilage in your knee. A meniscus tear is a common knee injury in contact sports and strenuous exercise. Aside from sports, even everyday activities that strain your knee can lead to a meniscus tear. Specific meniscus tear exercises can help with the recovery process. [1]

Before we delve into those, let’s take a quick look at why the meniscus is so important for us.

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Your meniscus functions as a cushion between the femur, your thighbone, and tibia, your shinbone, to distribute weight and reduce friction during movement. Two menisci in each knee, one medial (inner) and one lateral (outer) work together with ligaments to enhance stability and protect the joint from wear and tear. The meniscus also absorbs shock from walking and other activities. [1]

During a meniscus tear, the cartilage within the knee is forcibly split or torn, which can disrupt the smooth surface of the meniscus and compromise its ability to cushion and stabilize your knee joint.

This damage can result from a sudden twist or turn, a squat, or a direct impact. The tear can be in various forms, such as radial, horizontal, or complex, affecting the meniscus's structure and function.

How Do You Know If You Have Torn Your Meniscus? — Common Symptoms

Are you not quite sure if you have a meniscus tear? If you have torn one or both of your menisci, you might experience the following symptoms:

  • Knee pain: Particularly on the side where the tear has occurred.
  • Swelling: Your knee may swell due to inflammation.
  • Popping sensation: You might recall feeling a pop in your knee at the time of the injury, or feeling a popping sensation when moving your knee.
  • Difficulty bending and straightening: Your usual full range of motion might be compromised.
  • Locking or catching: Your knee might feel stuck or caught when you move it.
  • Instability: You feel your knee is giving out or cannot adequately support your weight. [1]

What Should You Do Immediately After a Meniscus Tear?

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If you've suffered a meniscus tear or suspect you did, it's crucial to act in the right manner to minimize further injury.

  1. First and foremost, adopt the R.I.C.E. method: Rest your knee, Ice the area to reduce swelling, Compress with a bandage to offer support, and Elevate your leg above heart level whenever possible. [2]
  2. Avoid putting weight on the affected leg, and consider using crutches for mobility without stressing the knee.
  3. Lastly, consulting with a healthcare professional as soon as possible is essential for a proper diagnosis and tailored treatment plan.

Taking these steps immediately after injury can significantly impact your recovery process, offering a smoother and quicker return to your daily activities or the sport you love.

When Should You See a Doctor with a Torn Meniscus?

If you have suffered a meniscus tear, or you suspect you have torn your meniscus, you should seek medical attention always and in any case. If you are in pain, go to the emergency room or pay your physician a visit if you do not experience strong symptoms or pain. [1]

An essential step in diagnosing a meniscus tear is to get an x-ray of the knee to be sure there are no fractures or bony abnormalities and to determine where and how your meniscus is torn. Some health providers also like to use an MRI to assess damage or disease in a surrounding ligament or muscle. [1]

Did your physician diagnose a meniscus tear already? Fear not! Luckily, some meniscus injury exercises and rehab exercises can help you regain your range of motion and assist with a swift recovery.

What are the Best Exercises for Meniscus Tear Rehabilitation?

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If your meniscus tear is less severe and does not require surgery (knee arthroscopy), some specific exercises for meniscus rehab can help your recovery process. [3]

Please consult your physical therapist or orthopedic doctor for the most suitable exercises for your injury.

1. Straight Leg Raises

  • How to Do: Lie on your back with one leg bent and the other straight. Tighten the quadriceps muscles of your straight leg and lift it to the height of the bent knee. Hold for a few seconds, then slowly lower it back down.
  • Why It Helps: Straight leg raises are strengthening exercises for your quadriceps and hip flexors, supporting the knee joint without applying pressure on the meniscus. [4]

2. Quad Sets

  • How to Do: Sit on the floor with your legs straight before you. Place a small, rolled towel under your knee. Tighten your thigh muscle (quadriceps) to press your knee into the towel. Hold for 5 seconds, then release.
  • Why It Helps: This exercise helps to strengthen your quadriceps without moving the knee, reducing the risk of aggravating the meniscus tear.

3. Hamstring Stretch/ Hamstring Curls

  • How to Do: Stand facing a chair or a table for support. Slowly bend the knee of your injured leg, bringing your heel toward your buttocks as far as comfortable. Hold for a few seconds, then lower slowly. Do 2–3 repetitions.
  • Why It Helps: Strengthens the hamstrings, which support and stabilize the knee joint. [4]

4. Heel Slides/Heel Dig

  • How to Do: Lie on your back with your legs straight. Slowly slide the heel of your injured leg towards your buttocks by bending the knee. Slide it back to the starting position.
  • Why It Helps: Increases knee flexibility and range of motion, crucial for recovery without putting excessive strain on the meniscus. [4]

5. Calf Raises

  • How to Do: Stand with your feet hip-width apart, using a chair or wall for balance. Raise your heels off the ground, standing on your toes, then slowly lower back down.
  • Why It Helps: Strengthens the calf muscles, which help support the leg and reduce the load on the knee during daily activities.

6. Partial Squats/Mini Squats

  • How to Do: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and slowly lower into a shallow squat, not going deeper than a 45-degree angle. Keep your weight on your heels and ensure your knees don't go past your toes.
  • Why It Helps: Strengthens the muscles around the knee without putting excessive pressure on the meniscus.

7. Seated Knee Extensions

  • How to Do: Sit on a chair with your thighs supported and feet hanging off the edge. Slowly extend one leg at a time, aiming for a range of motion that is comfortable and pain-free. Hold the extended position for a few seconds, then slowly lower your leg.
  • Why It Helps: This controlled movement helps strengthen the quadriceps muscles without placing excessive force on the knee joint and meniscus. [4]

How Long Does a Meniscus Tear Take to Recover?

Milder meniscus tears often heal within 4 to 6 weeks through rest. More severe cases that might need surgical intervention can extend your recovery period to 3 to 6 months.

When you can go back to work and be your old self, it also depends on your type of profession. If your job involves sitting, you might be ready to return within 1 to 2 weeks. However, for jobs that require standing, the timeline could extend to 4 to 6 weeks. If you are engaged in physically demanding roles or are a professional athlete, returning to your full exercise routine could take 3 to 9 months. [4]

If you have experienced a less critical tear, healthcare professionals typically suggest engaging in mild exercises or physiotherapy since physical therapy for meniscus tears can help with a swift recovery. Experiencing slight discomfort during these exercises is common. However, should any exercise result in pain, it's vital that you cease the activity immediately.

What Exercises Should You Avoid With a Meniscus Tear?

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Avoiding certain activities that could exacerbate the injury or delay healing is crucial when dealing with a meniscus tear.

CARE has prepared a list of exercises you should steer clear of, along with explanations as to why they might be harmful:

No Pivoting Movements

Why You Should Avoid It: These movements involve sudden changes in direction that can significantly strain your knee, potentially worsening the tear or causing additional injury to the knee joint. [3]

Avoid Deep Squatting & Forward Lunges

Why You Should Avoid It: Squatting deeply puts excessive pressure on your knee joints and meniscus, especially when bending past 90 degrees. This can increase the risk of further damage to the torn meniscus. A standard forward lunge isn't the best idea for someone with a meniscus issue either. A reverse lunge will take some pressure away from the knee and transfer it into the hamstring and glute muscles. [3]

No Twisting Motions

Why You Should Avoid It:  Twisting your knee, especially when your foot is planted and your knee is bent, can aggravate a meniscus tear. These motions stretch and potentially tear the cartilage even more. [3]

Avoid High-Impact Sports

Why You Should Avoid It: Activities such as running, jumping, or contact sports can exert a lot of stress on your knees, leading to increased pain and potentially prolonging the recovery process.

No Heavy Lifting

Why You Should Avoid It:  Lifting heavy objects can put undue stress on your knees, especially if it involves bending or squatting, risking further injury to the meniscus.

How CARE Helps You Optimize Your Fitness & Health

When it comes to treating a meniscus tear, the road to recovery begins before the injury itself. Health-wise, staying fit can prevent injuries such as a meniscus tear in the first place. [4]

A membership with CARE allows you to unleash your health potential with regular health check-ups, blood analysis, and tailored guidance from our health professionals on your health journey. This allows you to detect potential health and fitness gaps before they can lead to illness or injuries.

CARE helps you stay informed about the latest scientific insights in medicine, sports, nutrition, biology, and physio to stay healthy and elevate your health and wellness in the short and long run. After all, your health is your greatest asset!

List of References

Blog Author Elena Health Coach at CARE

Elena Iagovitina

Health Coach at CARE Zurich

About the author

Elena is an enthusiastic Health Coach and blog writer at CARE, with a passion for holistic medicine and health. Previously, Elena worked for almost five years as a coach leading retreats, workshops, and seminars. These included mind-body therapy: breath work, meditation, and massage; as well as energy force therapy: reiki, and qi gong; and third expressive therapy: movement, writing and support groups. Elena shares exciting articles on the blog, on the topic of where the alternative and traditional medicine intersect with Western Medicine. Elena is also the driving force behind the CARE community. In her spare time, she enjoys hiking, traveling to remote locations and dancing. You might also see her on the lake of Zurich as a coast guard. Join her on her journey to learn more about health and discover the world of preventive medicine! Visit all articles written by Elena!