Targeted Exercises May Help You Avoid Knee Surgery

Patient Expert

Are you starting to feel pain in your knee from playing football, basketball, soccer or tennis or being a long-time regular at the step aerobic class? You're not alone. According to the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons, the knee is the largest joint in the human body. Additionally, it is one of the most complex joints and is vulnerable to injury since people use it so much.

The most common injury is a meniscal tear, which is often described as torn cartilage in the knee. It is estimated that this type of injury affects approximately 30 percent of people who are 50 years old and above. The meniscus are tough, and rubbery wedge-shaped pieces of cartilage that serve as shock absorbers between the thighbone (which is known as the femur) and the shinbone (known as the tibia).

"Athletes, particularly those who play contact sports, are at risk for meniscal tears," the AAOS website states. "However, anyone at any age can tear a meniscus." Athletes often experience sudden meniscal tears through squatting and twisting the knee. Additionally, older people may have degenerative meniscal tears caused by cartilage that's weakened and been worn down over the years. This tissue can be torn by getting up from a chair.

A meniscus tear may feel like a pop; however, most people can continue to use their injured knee. However, over the next few days the knee will gradually stiffen and become swollen. In addition, you may feel like your knee is catching or locking or giving way. You also may not be able to move your knee through its full range of motion. AAOC stated that without treatment, a piece of this cartilage may loosen and go into the joint, thus causing the knee to slip, pop or lock.

Has this injury made you start thinking about having surgery to correct the issue? You may actually have another equally effective option. A new study out of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School suggests that physical therapy may help people who have torn meniscus as much as arthroscopic surgery. Additionally, therapy is much cheaper (between $1,000 and $2,000, as compared to approximately $5,000 for surgery) and poses less health risks.

In this study, 351 study participants who had arthritis and meniscus tears were assigned to get either surgery or physical therapy, which consisted of nine sessions on average as well as exercises they were asked to do at home. Thirty percent of the participants who were assigned to physical therapy ended up having the knee surgery before the six-month period because they felt the therapy wasn't benefitting them. However, interestingly, he researchers found that patients who did therapy had improved functionally as much at the six-month mark as well as at the one-year mark as patients who had the surgery.

Because of these results, some experts suggest that physical therapy should be the first option to try if you hurt your meniscus. To that effect, AAOS offers a knee conditioning program that targets the muscles that support the knee, thus reducing the stress on the knee. The muscles that are targeted include the quadriceps (front of the thigh), hamstrings (back of the thigh), abductors (outer thigh), adducters (inner thigh), and buttocks (gluteus medius and gluteus maximus). AAOS notes that you should not feel any pain while exercising. If you do, talk to your doctor or physical therapist.

Exercises include heel cord stretch, a standing quadriceps stretch, supine hamstring stretch, half squats, hamstring curls, calf raises, leg extensions, straight-leg raises, prone straight-leg raises, hip abduction, hip adduction and leg presses. AAOS provides specific steps for doing these exercises and also tips for preventing further injury.

Primary Sources for This Sharepost:

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (nd). Knee conditioning program.

American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons. (2009). Meniscal tears.

Marchione, M. (2013). Study: Therapy as good as surgery for knee repair. USA Today.