Torn Meniscus: Symptoms, Treatments, and Exercises from Physical Therapists

Learn how movement and physical therapy helps treat a torn meniscus and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Oct 27, 2023

Torn Meniscus: Symptoms, Treatments, and Exercises from Physical Therapists

Learn how movement and physical therapy helps treat a torn meniscus and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Oct 27, 2023

Torn Meniscus: Symptoms, Treatments, and Exercises from Physical Therapists

Learn how movement and physical therapy helps treat a torn meniscus and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Oct 27, 2023

Torn Meniscus: Symptoms, Treatments, and Exercises from Physical Therapists

Learn how movement and physical therapy helps treat a torn meniscus and get recommended exercises from physical therapists.

Published Date: Oct 27, 2023
Table of Contents

When you first hear your doctor utter the words “torn meniscus,” you might jump to all sorts of conclusions about what you will — and won’t — be able to do. But before you start worrying about your knee, canceling plans, or prepping for surgery, know this: While a torn meniscus might sound scary, the truth is most tears are mild and many people feel better with conservative measures. 

“Many people assume that they need surgery to recover from a torn meniscus, but that isn’t the case most of the time,” says Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT, a physical therapist at Hinge Health. “It’s possible to regain full function and mobility with simple steps like strengthening and stretching exercises along with physical therapy.”

Here, learn more about what causes a torn meniscus in your knee and how to treat it, especially with exercises from our Hinge Health physical therapists.

Our Hinge Health Experts

Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist
Dr. Aeder is a Hinge Health physical therapist and a board-certified athletic trainer.
Dylan Peterson, PT, DPT
Physical Therapist and Clinical Reviewer
Dr. Peterson is a Hinge Health physical therapist who focuses on developing clinical exercise therapy programs and member education.
Jonathan Lee, MD, MBA
Orthopedic Surgeon and Medical Reviewer
Dr. Lee is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and an Associate Medical Director at Hinge Health.

What Is a Torn Meniscus?

The meniscus is a rubbery C-shaped disc of cartilage that helps to cushion your knee joint — you have two in each knee. Like all cartilage, the meniscus is a strong, flexible connective tissue that protects your bones and joints and acts as a shock absorber, says Dr. Aeder. In this case, the meniscus helps distribute load where the thighbone and the shinbone meet. 

When you tear this particular piece of cartilage, it’s called a torn meniscus. As you can imagine, given how much your knee has to bear and maneuver, these types of tears are very common. They can happen while playing sports or just in the course of daily living. They can occur at any age, but especially as you get older. In fact, research shows that about 75% of people with symptoms of knee osteoarthritis have a torn meniscus that, at times, contributes to their discomfort.

Symptoms of a Torn Meniscus

Not every torn meniscus is painful — some tears in the meniscus may not cause any symptoms or discomfort. If that’s not the case for you, here are common torn meniscus symptoms:

  • Pain. If it’s from an acute tear due to injury, knee pain tends to develop gradually over a 24-hour period. It typically worsens with any twisting or pivoting movement.

  • Stiffness. You may not be able to move your knee through its full range of motion. 

  • Swelling. Like pain, swelling in the knee gradually worsens over the first 24 hours after the injury.

  • Catching or locking of your knee. 

  • A feeling that your knee may give out.

Common Causes of a Torn Meniscus

Here are two of the most common reasons you may experience a torn meniscus:

Injury. Rotating or twisting your knee while it’s flexed with your foot planted on the ground can put a lot of stress on your meniscus and cause it to tear, explains Dr. Aeder. It’s more likely to occur in sports that involve frequent pivoting and cutting, like soccer, basketball, tennis, and skiing.

Normal aging. As you get older, it’s normal for the body to change, like the way you get wrinkles on your skin. The meniscus is no exception, which is why tears can become more common as you age. “While a tear can feel like pain is inevitable, recovery is common and very possible. Most people can drastically change how their knee feels, even if they might not be able to change how their aging knee looks on a scan,” says Dr. Aeder. In situations like this, it’s best to think of the meniscus tear as a component of natural aging, rather than an isolated problem.

Torn Meniscus: A Hinge Health Perspective

Anytime you hear that you’ve torn something in your body, it’s perfectly natural to assume that resting the affected area is the right way to help it heal, prevent further injury, or minimize pain. And while that’s an understandable assumption, it’s not, in fact, the best way forward. 

Maintaining movement, even if modified, can actually help you achieve the results you want by helping to speed healing, prevent further injury, and ease pain. This is especially true for a torn meniscus, because you want to keep the knee joint active and flexible. 

Another reason to keep moving: Your knee — and the muscles that support it — need to be strengthened to help you recover safely and prevent re-injury in the future.

Jillian Aeder, PT, DPT
The meniscus is a stabilizing structure in the knee, so if it’s torn or injured, you want to make sure that you're still maintaining stability elsewhere. Strength training can help to make up for that loss of stability in the knee.

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Treatment Options for a Meniscus Tear

The following tips from our Hinge Health physical therapists and medical doctors can help provide relief for a torn meniscus:

  • Prioritize P.E.A.C.E. and L.O.V.E. While you may be familiar with the R.I.C.E. (rest, ice, compression, and elevation) method for recovery, the latest thinking is to focus on P.E.A.C.E. (protect, elevate, adjust anti-inflammatories, compression, and educate) and L.O.V.E. (load, optimism, vascularization, and exercise) for the affected area. This dual approach prioritizes movement and exercise as a vital component to your healing.

  • Consider over-the-counter (OTC) pain medication. Pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin), naproxen (Aleve), and acetaminophen (Tylenol) can be helpful for pain from a torn meniscus. It’s important to make sure that you are safely able to take these medications, based on your medical history.

  • Engage in exercise therapy. Many people may feel hesitant to move after being told they have a torn meniscus. “If your doctor has cleared you for physical therapy, it’s safe to move,” reassures Dr. Aeder. Working with a physical therapist can help you strengthen the knee, but also help you regain confidence that it’s okay to bear weight on the knee. You can see a physical therapist in person or use a program like Hinge Health to access a PT via telehealth/video visit.

  • Try bracing. A knee brace may help you with your symptoms. Just remember to spend time out of the brace as you work to regain full range of motion in the affected knee.

A Word About Surgery and Meniscal Tears

For most people, surgery is not needed to treat a torn meniscus and research suggests that conservative measures should be prioritized. But if your symptoms don’t improve after initial treatments, and especially if you have associated mechanical symptoms (such as clicking, catching, or locking), you should speak with your doctor to see if surgery is something that might be an option. When surgery is appropriate, it can work very well, with about 80 percent of patients reporting that they’re still happy with the results five years later, according to a 2022 review in the Journal of Bone and Joint Surgery.

Exercises for Torn Meniscus Relief

Get 100+ similar exercises for free

  • Calf Stretch
  • Straight Leg Raise
  • Bridge
  • Hamstring Curl
  • Wall Squats
  • Quad Stretch

These exercises are recommended by Hinge Health physical therapists to support healing 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 moves are particularly beneficial because they focus not just on stabilization and mobilization of the knee, but also the training and strengthening you need to 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: Don’t Rush Into Surgery

When something is torn, it’s reasonable to think it needs to be repaired. In the case of a torn meniscus, when it comes to “repairing” the tear, most people think that translates to surgery. “People hear the word tear and assume it needs to be fixed,” says Dr. Aeder. But surgery isn’t the only fix to consider. Much of the time, meniscal tears can be successfully treated with a home exercise program and physical therapy, says Dr. Aeder. Torn meniscus recovery time is usually six to eight weeks, but don’t get discouraged if it takes longer. “People are often pleasantly surprised that they can regain motion, strength, and stability — and return to all the things they enjoy — without surgery,” she adds.

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.

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  2. 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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  5. Cardone, D.A., Jacobs, B.C. March 13, 2023. Meniscal injury of the knee. UpToDate. 

  6. Alaia, M.J., Wilkerson, R. March 2021. Meniscus Tears. OrthoInfo.