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Want To Avoid Surgery On Your Torn Meniscus? What Exercises Can Help?

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If you've recently torn your meniscus—the donut-shaped piece of tissue that helps cushion your patella from damage--you may be dejected at the prospect of having this tear surgically repaired. While these tears can be repaired arthroscopically, sometimes even under "twilight sleep" rather than general anesthesia, active adults may dread the thought of being out of commission for weeks or potentially even months while the joint recuperates. Are there any alternative therapies that can help you get back in the swing of things while reducing the amount of pain, stiffness, and swelling you experience? Read on to learn more about your meniscus repair options.

Will your meniscus tear heal on its own? 

The composition and structure of the meniscus makes it uniquely well-suited to its function as the knee's shock absorber, but can also make recovering from injury difficult. Although the meniscus does have some circulation, the amount of blood flowing through this structure isn't nearly as much as in other tissues, which means that tears near the edge of the meniscus, where blood flow is even further reduced, may heal slowly (or not at all). Tears near the center of the meniscus or where the meniscus attaches to the patella are far more likely to heal on their own without medical intervention than "outside" tears. 

An MRI can help you determine where your tears are located, how many you have, how large they are, and—sometimes—whether they're growing. Often, if you're not experiencing knee pain or a limited range of mobility and your meniscal tear is in an area where it's more likely to heal on its own, your orthopedist will simply recommend a "watch and wait" process rather than encouraging you to submit to surgery when it may not be needed.

On the other hand, someone who is experiencing significant pain after a knee injury, who has trouble standing or walking for long periods of time due to this pain, or whose knee swells after more than a few minutes upright may benefit from more invasive intervention to avoid developing osteoarthritis or other related complications. 

What exercises or therapies may help your meniscus recover? 

Meniscus tears are incredibly common, especially among older adults: one study found that more than 60 percent of adults over age 50 who didn't experience chronic knee pain (and 63 percent who did suffer from chronic knee pain) had at least one meniscal tear. 

Fortunately, there are a number of different physical therapy exercises and therapies that, while perhaps not knitting your torn meniscus back together, can help strengthen the complementary parts of your knee and leg and reduce your physical symptoms. These include: 

Clam Stretch

To perform this stretch, you'll begin on your side, in the fetal position with your knees and heels together (with your "bad" knee on top). Slowly move your top leg toward the ceiling, taking care to keep your heels together so that you feel the stretch in your bottom leg as well. After holding this position for a few seconds, you'll be able to return both legs to the floor. This stretch is designed to strengthen the muscles on the inside and outside of your knee, which will operate to keep your meniscus in place rather than letting it slide from side to side. 

Stair Steps

If you find your knee pain intensifies whenever you go up or down stairs, this exercise could improve your endurance while reducing pain. To perform this exercise, you'll want to find a set of stairs or a small block that can support your weight. Placing your injured leg on the higher stair, you'll want to slowly shift your weight from your "good" leg on the ground to your injured leg, straightening it in the process until you're standing fully upright. You'll then go back to your original position and start again. 

Performing these exercises slowly, mindfully, and deliberately can provide you with a noticeable improvement in the function of your knee (and your pain level) without requiring surgery or a daily medication regimen.