Exercises for Meniscus Tears: What Physical Therapists Recommend
Learn how physical therapy helps treat a torn meniscus and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.
If you’ve been told you have a “torn meniscus,” your first thought may be that you’ll need surgery to repair it, but, in fact, meniscus tear exercises can be highly effective in helping you recover. “Much of the time, meniscus tears can be treated conservatively with physical therapy that prioritizes strengthening and stretching exercises,” says Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health.
Your meniscus plays a key role in stabilizing and providing cushion to your knee joint. When you’ve torn it, physical therapy can help manage swelling, as well as help you regain strength and range of motion which may be lost, especially if the tear is due to an acute injury.
“Building strength and stability in your knees, hips, and ankles can go a long way when it comes to helping you heal and get back to all the activities you enjoy,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “This will allow your knee to once again engage in movements like squatting and walking up stairs—activities that may be initially challenging with a meniscus tear.”
Read on to learn more about how physical therapy can help treat a meniscus tear and what meniscus tear exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists.
Our Hinge Health Experts
Mary Kimbrough, PT, DPT
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
What Is a Meniscus Tear?
A meniscus tear is a tear in one of the two wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage, or menisci, that act as shock absorbers in your knee joint, says Dr. Kimbrough. Menisci help your knee joint bear weight and keep your knee stable. There are two main ways you can tear your meniscus:
Cartilage changes. It’s normal for cartilage throughout the body to change over time as a natural part of aging. These changes are frequently associated with tears in the meniscus, explains Dr. Kimbrough. And if you’re someone who does a lot of kneeling, squatting, or climbing stairs either at work or during recreational activities, you may be more likely to develop a torn meniscus, though many people can do these activities without developing problems from a symptomatic meniscus tear.
Knee injury. You can tear your meniscus as the result of a direct injury, which is more commonly seen in young, active adults who play a sport like basketball, soccer, rugby, or football, where they twist and pivot on one knee in a way that causes a tear, notes Dr. Kimbrough.
Physical Therapy for a Meniscus Tear
If you have a torn meniscus, physical therapy can be key to your recovery. Anytime you hear that you’ve torn something in your body, it’s normal to feel at least a little fearful about using that area. But movement is critical for recovering from a meniscus tear.
“Oftentimes, patients come in to see me and assume that they’ll need surgery for their meniscus tear,” says Dr. Kimbrough. “Surgery does have its place, but many people recover with physical therapy, by improving the strength, stability, and range of motion of their knee.” In fact, a 2022 study in JAMA Network Open followed 321 patients between the ages of 45 and 70 with a meniscal tear and found that those who underwent 16 exercise-based physical therapy sessions did just as well over a five-year period as patients who underwent surgery.
Your physical therapist (PT) will create an exercise plan to help you build and keep knee strength so that you can restore full movement to your knee. And that usually means also strengthening all the muscles and structures that support your knee, including your hips, ankles, and core muscles. “You want to build up not just the area around your knee, but the areas above and below it to help stabilize your legs,” says Dr. Kimbrough. This will help ease pressure on healing knee tissue.
PTs can also offer suggestions on how to maintain your cardio fitness while your meniscus heals. In general, if it feels okay, it’s safe to maintain any cardio you were doing regularly, says Dr. Kimbrough, but you may find that low-impact activities, like swimming, biking, yoga, and walking, are most comfortable at first. You may also find that performing initial strengthening exercises, like squats, leg raises, and lunges, are easier to do in the water, since it takes weight off joints.
You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.
PT-Recommended Exercises to Relieve Meniscus Tear Symptoms
These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to support symptom relief from a torn meniscus and generally strengthen the knee (and the muscles that surround it) as well as maintain and improve the knee’s range of motion. These exercises for a torn meniscus are particularly beneficial because they focus not just on stabilization and mobilization of the knee, but also the training and strengthening you need to help prevent further injury.
The information contained in these videos is intended to be used for educational purposes only and does not constitute medical advice or treatment for any specific condition. Hinge Health is not your healthcare provider and is not responsible for any injury sustained or exacerbated by your use of or participation in these exercises. Please consult with your healthcare provider with any questions you may have about your medical condition or treatment.
PT Tip: Be Careful with Knee Braces
Knee braces may be helpful initially after an acute injury to help prevent injury and give you some support with movement. But long-term use may actually do more harm than good. “Braces prevent you from using your muscles, which you need to strengthen for healing,” says Dr. Kimbrough.
How Hinge Health Can Help You
If you have joint or muscle pain that makes it hard to move, you can get the relief you’ve been looking for with Hinge Health’s online exercise therapy program.
The best part: You don’t have to leave your home because our program is digital. That means you can easily get the care you need through our app, when and where it works for you.
Through our program, you’ll have access to therapeutic exercises and stretches for your condition.
Additionally, you’ll have a personal care team to guide, support, and tailor our program to you. See if you qualify for Hinge Health and confirm free coverage through your employer or benefit plan here.
This article and its contents are provided for educational and informational purposes only and do not constitute medical advice or professional services specific to you or your medical condition.
Common Questions About Meniscus Tear Treatment
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Nepple, J. J., Block, A. M., Eisenberg, M. T., Palumbo, N. E., & Wright, R. W. (2022). Meniscal Repair Outcomes at Greater Than 5 Years. Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery, 104(14), 1311–1320. doi:10.2106/jbjs.21.01303
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Cardone, D.A., Jacobs, B.C. (2023, November). Meniscal injury of the knee. UpToDate. Retrieved from https://www.uptodate.com/contents/meniscal-injury-of-the-knee
Alaia, M.J., Wilkerson, R. (2021, March). Meniscus Tears. OrthoInfo – American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. Retrieved from https://orthoinfo.aaos.org/en/diseases--conditions/meniscus-tears
Noorduyn, J. C. A., van de Graaf, V. A., Willigenburg, N. W., Scholten-Peeters, G. G. M., Kret, E. J., van Dijk, R. A., Buchbinder, R., Hawker, G. A., Coppieters, M. W., Poolman, R. W., & ESCAPE Research Group. (2022). Effect of Physical Therapy vs Arthroscopic Partial Meniscectomy in People With Degenerative Meniscal Tears: Five-Year Follow-up of the ESCAPE Randomized Clinical Trial. JAMA Network Open, 5(7), e2220394–e2220394. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.20394
Skou, S. T., & Thorlund, J. B. (2018). A 12-week supervised exercise therapy program for young adults with a meniscal tear: Program development and feasibility study. Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 22(3), 786–791. doi:10.1016/j.jbmt.2017.07.010