The meniscus is a wedge-shaped cartilage in the knee joint that wears down over time. A tear of this cartilage, called a degenerative meniscus tear, may be tempting to “walk off,” but that might be a bad idea.
An athlete might tear a meniscus with a sudden leg movement, but the injury can happen to anyone. All it takes is playing, jumping, or even twisting the wrong way at the wrong time.
With a meniscus tear, you’ll likely experience some pain, stiffness, and swelling in your knee.
Other possible symptoms include:
- a sense of your knee buckling or giving way beneath you
- a catch in your knee or feeling like your knee is locking in place
- not being able to move your knee through its normal full range of motion
If you do tear a meniscus, whether or not you can put weight on the affected leg depends on a few different factors.
Whether you can walk on a torn meniscus will depend on the injury’s location and severity — and perhaps also your own personal tolerance for pain.
A slight tear might not feel so bad to you. You may very well be able to stand and walk on a leg that has a torn meniscus in the knee. But is it a good idea?
Some meniscus tears can heal on their own without surgery. Typically, the tears that occur in the outer part of the meniscus are the least likely to need surgical repair. You may be able to walk around without too much trouble as it heals over time. You might have to take some over-the-counter pain medication.
If your tear is more severe, you may need surgery to repair it and stabilize your knee. In that case, a healthcare professional might tell you to avoid putting weight on your knee for a few weeks after surgery.
Benefits of walking after a meniscus tear
After you have surgery to repair a meniscus tear, you may need to build up your strength in the muscles of your leg that support your knee.
You’ll begin a graduated rehabilitation protocol that can vary depending on the surgeon who performs your surgery and the technique they used. Graduated rehabilitation exercises slowly increase in intensity and range of motion to avoid further injury.
If your doctor has told you that you don’t need surgery to repair your torn meniscus, you may be given the green light to walk.
However, you’ll want to be very careful about movements that might worsen the tear or cause you pain. Avoid squatting and pivoting, which are likely to place too much pressure on the knee.
If you do need surgery, weight bearing is often limited afterward. Be sure to pay close attention to the recommendations you receive from your surgeon.
They may instruct you to use crutches and wear a knee brace whenever you put any weight on your knee for 4 weeks or more after surgery. Don’t try to push yourself beyond what your doctor and physical therapist recommend.
Your doctor is unlikely to recommend running soon after tearing your meniscus. You’ll need to give your knee joint some time to heal, regardless of whether you need surgery to repair the meniscus tear.
After your knee has healed, your doctor or physical therapist may agree that you’re ready for some exercises and impact activities again. This may come after you’ve built up some strength and developed good control over your knee when performing functional movements. At this point, you should no longer be experiencing pain during normal activities.
You may need to start slow and build up while checking your knee for swelling and pain.
As you recover from a meniscus tear, you’ll want to avoid any activities that might slow your recovery process.
First, remember the acronym RICE:
Don’t try to push yourself or try to walk it off. Take a break and rest your injured leg.
Apply a cold compress to your knee for 20 minutes, then remove it. Repeat several times throughout the day.
Compression helps control swelling, which naturally occurs with a meniscus tear. Gently pull a compression sleeve over your knee to reduce the swelling.
When you’re taking a load off and resting that knee, go ahead and elevate it. This should also help bring down swelling.
Other strategies that may help you while you recover are:
- NSAIDs. Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs can help you manage pain and inflammation.
- Physical therapy. Daily exercises and stretches can help you improve your knee’s function and mobility.
- Avoiding high impact activities. This is not the time to run or jump, which might jostle your knee and possibly make the injury even worse.
- Corticosteroid injections. An injection of a corticosteroid every few weeks might help reduce swelling and pain.
A meniscus tear can get worse when left untreated.
For example, you might have trouble managing the pain and swelling in your knee, or your knee may continue feeling like it’s catching or locking.
If you feel your symptoms are getting worse instead of better, it could be a sign that your tear isn’t healing quite right. Call your doctor to discuss the situation.
If you had surgery, you might also want to keep a close eye out for possible signs of infection in your knee. Let your doctor know if the following symptoms develop:
- increased swelling or redness in your knee area
- an inability to move or bend your knee
- fever and chills
Make sure to see a doctor if you injure your knee so you can get the right diagnosis and treatment plan. Try to keep weight off your injured leg until a doctor checks out the injury.