If you’re suffering from a meniscus tear, here’s everything you need to know on your road to recovery.
We probably don’t need to convince you that a meniscus tear is one of the most painful running injuries. The cartilage rips, you hear an ominous snap or popping sound and do all but everything not to collapse in pain It’s. The. Worst. Hang in there, recovery is in sight.
While that might be the last thing you want to hear while you’re in the middle of training, don’t let it get you down. Pushing yourself past your body’s limits will only make your injury worse and delay your recovery time, so rest up and read on! Here’s your guide to a fast and smooth recovery from a torn meniscus:
- What is a meniscus tear?
- Types of meniscus tears
- Who’s at risk?
- Meniscus tear symptoms
- Meniscus tear recovery – without surgery
- Meniscus tear recovery – with surgery
- Preventing meniscus tears
What is a meniscus tear?
The meniscus is a piece of cartilage located in the knee joint (you also have menisci located in your wrist, shoulder, and jaw joints). Cartilage is that thick, slippery connective tissue that lines the surface between your bone and joint socket to keep bones sliding smoothly and painlessly in their joint sockets. In this case, the meniscus lies between your femur and tibia bones to prevent them from grinding against one another.
Your meniscus is strong, but not injury-proof. In fact, one of the most common knee injuries is a meniscus tear. Most of the time, the meniscus is torn while the leg is bent and the knee is suddenly twisted. That sounds awful because it is awful.
Types of Meniscus Tears
One way to define a meniscus tear is to determine whether it’s a white zone tear or a red zone tear.
The red zone is the outside part of the cartilage, and the white zone is the inside part. If the tear occurs in a red zone, there’s a greater chance that the meniscus will fully heal. The red zone receives a supply of blood, and blood contains the nutrients that are needed for natural healing. On the other hand, the white zone receives no blood supply, and so a tear in this area is less likely to heal on its own.
There are several different kinds of meniscus tears:
1. Radial Tear
A radial tear is the most common type of meniscus tear. A radial tear begins at the inner rim of the cartilage—closest to the center of your knee joint—and extends toward the outer rim. Remember high school geometry? Probably not, but if you do, a radial tear looks like the radius line on a circle.
Unfortunately, a radial tear occurs in the white zone of the cartilage, so the torn pieces can’t be sewn back together. Surgery may be required to trim the torn portion of cartilage. Sorry.
2. Horizontal Tear
A horizontal tear runs along the—you guessed it—horizontal axis of the meniscus. The tear could occur in the white zone or in the red zone, so its recoverability depends entirely on where it’s located. If it occurs in the red zone, it’s likely that the tear can heal on its own.
3. Flap Tear
A flap tear is a tear in which a “flap” of the meniscus is torn from the main piece of cartilage. Sounds gross, right? The flap could interfere with the bending of the knee joint, so surgery might be required to cut it away. Thankfully, this surgery usually requires only a small portion of tissue to be removed.
4. Bucket-Handle Tear
A bucket-handle tear is a large horizontal tear. The tear is so large that it causes a sliver of the inner rim to flip over like a bucket handle. The tear is extremely disruptive to your knee’s bending motion, and it may keep you from bending your knee altogether; a bucket-handle tear typically requires urgent surgery.
Who’s at Risk?
Bad news: anyone can tear their meniscus. All it takes is an unfortunate twisting of the knee. That being said, the meniscus is often torn by athletes who are highly active. Athletes who make sharp cuts while they’re running—like football players and tennis players—are more at risk of a meniscus tear.
Older folks are also more likely to suffer a meniscus tear. And we’re not only talking about the “elderly”! Anyone aged 45 and up is more likely to suffer from this injury. That’s because the meniscus naturally wears down over time. Heck, it supports about 50% of your body weight when you’re standing! It won’t be the most gracefully aged cartilage in your body.
Oh, well. Things fall apart, right?
Meniscus Tear Symptoms
If you tear your meniscus, you’ll probably know it right away. Most likely, you’ll feel a sharp, sudden pain in your knee and possibly a “tearing” sound or popping sensation. If you’re unfortunate enough to have experienced this already, we commend your toughness.
Some other very unfortunate symptoms include:
- Swelling in your knee
- Difficulty bending your leg
- The tendency for your knee to “lock up”
Sometimes, you won’t immediately feel pain after the tear—especially if you’re playing a sport and your body is full of adrenaline. But if any of these symptoms kick in, you’ll probably have to get imaging done to confirm the existence of a tear.
Meniscus Tear Recovery: Without Surgery
With conservative treatment, your meniscus tear should take about 6 to 8 weeks to fully heal. Conservative treatment means that you won’t be undergoing surgery.
That’s right! You read that correctly. If your knee:
- Is bendable
- Doesn’t lock up
- Can support your weight
- Stops hurting and swelling
Lucky you! You probably don’t have to go under the knife (you should always consult with your doctor, of course). To best treat your knee and ensure that it properly recovers:
- Rest your knee and limit activities that require standing or walking
- Elevate the knee and apply ice every 4 hours until swelling stops
- Use crutches or a knee brace until your knee can support your full weight
- Take anti-inflammatory drugs, if recommended by your doctor
A major part of your recovery involves strengthening your leg muscles, most often the quadriceps and hamstring muscles. That doesn’t mean you should hit the squat rack right away—without a fully functioning knee, you probably won’t have the stability to handle heavy weights. Instead, opt for stretching and simple exercises that you can do at home.
A physical therapist can help you regain strength and endurance in your knee. Physical therapists know the right exercises to help you regain knee function, and they’ll also make sure that you’re training at a healthy pace so that you won’t risk re-injury.
Meniscus Tear Recovery: With Surgery
If your knee keeps locking up and you suffer from persistent pain, the tear is probably intrusive enough that surgery is required to return proper knee function. Some people can lightly return to their routine within only 2 to 3 weeks following surgery. Full recovery may take anywhere from 14 to 22 weeks, though, depending on the severity of the tear.
Before surgery, try resting your knee at home. Keep it elevated and apply ice and compression (a bandage). Post-surgery, recovery occurs over three phases. A physical therapist is often enlisted to help you through each one.
During the first phase of recovery, you’ll work to regain your normal leg movement. This phase could last anywhere from 4 to 6 weeks. You’ll do light exercises, but you won’t bear any weight. Your exercises might include:
- Light stretching
- Light calisthenics
- Aquatic therapy or swimming
You may have to wear crutches or a knee brace during this period.
During the second phase of recovery, you’ll work to regain strength and stability in your knee. This phase could last anywhere from 6 to 14 weeks. Exercises are focused on strengthening your quadriceps and hamstring muscles. Your activities might include:
- Light strength training
- Balance exercises
- Stationary bike
Ultimately, the goal of this phase is to get you walking at your normal stride.
During the third phase of recovery, you’ll work to regain your knee’s ability to handle advanced movements that incorporate greater weight-bearing and flexing. Basically, you’ll be trying to regain your ability to perform movements that are optimal for work or sports. This phase could last anywhere from 14 to 22 weeks. Your exercises might include:
- Fast tempo exercises
- Weight training
Hopefully, you’ll be able to gradually return to high-impact sporting activities after this phase.
Unfortunately, after you suffer a meniscus injury, you may have a higher chance of re-injury if you participate in sporting activities, whether that be basketball or wakeboarding or pounding the pavement. We know that’s a bummer… but it would also be a bummer to have a second tear and a second surgery, and further damage to your knee could cause more serious long-term damage. So we advise you to tread lightly!
Granted, your risk of re-injury is dependent on the severity of the tear. Definitely consult with your doctor before you resume sporting activities. Your doctor can give you better insight into how well your knee can withstand the pressure.
Preventing Meniscus Tears
If you’re a super-active person, or merely someone who ages like the rest of us (and unless you’re some sort of Paul Rudd clone, chances are, you do), you can’t completely prevent a meniscus tear from happening. But there are a few things you can do to protect your knee and maintain a healthy knee joint over time:
- Wear quality, well-fitted athletic shoes
- Stretch your legs frequently
- Build strength in your leg muscles
- Learn how to properly execute sharp cuts and leg movements
Again, practicing all of these bullet points is no guarantee that you can prevent a meniscus tear. Meniscus tears, after all, occur in even the strongest, most well-trained athletes.
If you do suffer from a meniscus tear, it’s important to be patient while you recover. It’s always a drag being limited by a knee injury; to be immobilized and kept from doing something as simple as walking is beyond frustrating. But the long-term health of your knee is of the utmost importance. So long as you take your recovery one step at a time and don’t force any unneeded stress on the healing knee, there’s a good chance that you’ll be walking, running, cutting, and jumping just liked you used to.