When dealing with knee pain, it can be unclear where the pain is stemming from. But by identifying if you may have a knee meniscus tear or not, you can begin the healing process more efficiently.
Written by: Coach Todd
Meniscus tears are among the most common knee injuries in individuals 50 and over. It often leads to pain and a limited range of motion, yikes!
Each of your knees has two C-shaped pieces of cartilage on either side of your knee cap that acts as a cushion between your shinbone and your thighbone.
The inside cartilage is termed the medial meniscus while the outside is called the lateral meniscus.
When healthy, these menisci act like suction cups to keep your knee stable. And although lateral meniscus tears are less likely than medial tears, both injuries decrease the suction ability of the cartilage. This causes the knee to feel unstable and leads to pain.
How Do People Over 50 Typically Get Knee Meniscus Tears?
There are two types of causes for meniscus tears, especially in individuals 50 and up.
The first is an acute injury, meaning something suddenly caused the meniscus to tear, strain, or stress. This can include stepping out of the car wrong, landing in a strange position, or taking a fall.
The other cause of meniscus tears occurs through chronic injuries, such as arthritis. Arthritis causes wear and tear on the joints, causing the connective tissue (aka the meniscus) to slowly wear out.
When this happens, many individuals start to complain that they are unable to move their knees through a full range of motion and often experience pain when bending over or squatting down.
Top 3 Signs You Have a Knee Meniscus Tear
From the sensation of the knee “giving way” or an uncomfortable catching/locking of the knee joint, it can be difficult to determine exactly what is wrong.
Besides the stiffness and swelling, there can be many signs someone has a meniscus tear. Here are 3 self-assessments you can do to support your knee meniscus tear symptoms:
Pain with Standing Twist
Stand behind a chair on the injured leg. Make sure to keep your knee slightly bent and not locked backward. Using the chair for support, gently twist your hips back and forth. Your knee should help stabilize you, however, if this produces pain it is a likely sign you have a torn meniscus.
Tenderness at the Joint Line
The space between your shin bones (tibia and fibia) and your thigh bone (femur) is considered the “joint line.” The border of the joint line at the sides of the kneecap (patellar ligament) and the border above and below the shin should be identified.
Find your joint line on your affected leg with your fingers and press on it.
If you feel pain when pressed, this can indicate a tear. This test can also help you determine which side the tear may be on.
When you have pain on the inside of your leg, it is most likely a medial tear. If the pain is on the outside of your leg, it is a lateral tear.
Lacking Full Extension
While sitting with both legs out in front of you, try to straighten both legs.
If you notice that one knee doesn’t fully straighten or if it is painful to try and push down on it, this another indication you have a knee meniscus tear.
Did you “pass” all three tests? Don’t fear, this doesn’t automatically mean you’re headed for the surgery room!
Doctors have actually proven that the body can heal itself and that tears can improve with simple exercise.
I have helped many of my own clients improve their pain and discomfort from a knee meniscus tear naturally and now I’ll teach you, too!
Natural Treatment for a Knee Meniscus Tear: Exercise
Because the meniscus has decreased blood flow due to it’s anatomy, it’s super important to start exercises right away.
Now, you may be tempted to “tough it out” and continue your daily activities with a meniscus tear, but I don’t recommend that you hope this pain will go away on its own. Addressing your knee will help prevent further issues down the road, like severe arthritis.
These exercises below are designed to increase blood flow to the area, supplying nutrients to heal and strengthen the joint.
At first, I do recommend you avoid any intense weight training or closed-chain exercises like squats and lunges. These exercises require your feet to be planted on the ground and can add additional stress to the knee joint, thus putting too much weight on the meniscus.
Instead, opt for open-chain knee meniscus tear exercises where the foot is free to move. Let me show you!
Mini Leg Lifts
In order to stabilize the knee, it’s important to strengthen the surrounding muscle. This exercise is a gentle way to build strength in the top of the thigh (quad muscle).
Place a rolled towel or ball under the knee of the injured leg while sitting on your floor or bed. Slowly press your knee into the towel to raise your foot off the ground and hold for 5 seconds.
Gently control your foot back down
Repeat for a total of 10 reps.
Full Leg Lifts
This next exercise will again focus on thigh strength which helps stabilize the knee, but it will also incorporate the hip. The hip and knee work together when walking, climbing stairs, and squatting so it’s important to train them together.
Remove the towel from underneath your knee allowing your injured leg to lay straight out. Your opposite leg should be bent.
Slowly raise your straight leg off the ground or bed and hold for 5 seconds. Gently control your foot back down.
Repeat for a total of 10 reps.
Side Leg Lifts
While the first two exercises focused on strength and control in the front of the leg, this exercise is meant to gain strength in the side of the leg. It’s important to also target the muscles on the outside of the knee as this group of muscles also has an impact on your stability and balance.
Lay on your side with the bottom leg bent and the injured leg on top and straight. Rotate your foot so that your toes are pointing down.
Slowly lift your leg, keeping your toes pointed downward and hold for 5 seconds when you reach your peak. Gently control your foot back down.
Repeat for a total of 10 reps.
What Is the Meniscus Tear Recovery Time Without Surgery?
As you aim to heal your meniscus naturally, it may be necessary to reduce sport activities or intense plyometrics that place your knee in unstable positions. This could take anywhere from 4–8 weeks depending on the severity and position of the tear.
During the healing process, your pain and stiffness should decrease along with any “catching” feeling within the joint. I recommend that you stick with the above exercises daily.
It is also important as you improve to incorporate other strengthening exercises into your routine. Try starting with some light pool exercises or begin incorporating more closed-chain exercises like in this bodyweight strengthening workout.