How can you return to work faster after meniscus surgery?

If you are facing surgery for a torn meniscus in your knee, you probably have a lot of questions. Top on the list for you and your employer is likely, “how can you return to work faster after meniscus surgery?”

Surgery for a torn meniscus in your knee will be either a meniscectomy or meniscus repair. Depending on which you receive, the recovery time will vary greatly.

During a meniscectomy the torn portions of the meniscus are removed from the knee. Depending on the physical expectations of your job, the return to work time can vary between 1-2 weeks for a job that is primarily sedentary and up to 4-6 weeks for a job that requires more standing, walking, climbing, or other physical duties.

A meniscus repair is a procedure that repairs the torn portion of the meniscus instead of removing it. While this helps to maintain joint integrity better than removing a portion of the meniscus; it has its disadvantages.

First, not all tears in the meniscus occur in the area of the tissue that can be repaired. The tear needs to be in the outer area of the meniscus where there is blood supply to allow for healing to occur.

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The second issue, and the draw back for many considering their return to work, is the length of recovery. Full recovery will likely take between 3-5 months.

Whichever procedure you and your doctor determine is best for your injury and long term needs, there are steps that will get you to your prior level and return to work faster.

1. Pre-operative care

It will put you at an advantage after surgery to work on your knee prior to going under the knife.

It will put you at an advantage after surgery to work on your knee prior to going under the knife.

  • Strengthening your quadriceps muscle, the muscle on the top of your thigh between your knee and hip, before your surgery will encourage improved strength after. Your injury has likely caused your quad to weaken. The stronger it is before surgery, the less time it will take to gain full strength after.
  • Try to keep your swelling down. The less effusion, or internal swelling, the easier it is for the quadriceps to strengthen with exercise. You will still have swelling after surgery but starting with less can promote healing at a faster rate.
  • Lastly, keep your range of motion as close to normal as possible. Focusing on both the ability to bend and straighten your knee completely will keep the tissues surrounding the knee from adaptively shortening in the time before your procedure.

One or two sessions with a physical therapist to learn a few key exercises can go a long way in shortening your post-operative care.

2. Limiting swelling after surgery

Swelling following surgery is a normal part of the process. However, keeping that swelling to a minimum will speed up your recovery.

  • Cryotherapy or ice: It is important to ice your knee frequently after your surgery. Several times a day for the first week for 15 to 20 minutes each time will reduce both swelling and post-operative pain. Both of those factors will make it easier to move your knee.
  • Elevation: Keep your entire leg elevated in order to promote circulation away from your knee. When elevated, gravity will help decrease the swelling in your knee as well as the rest of your entire lower leg.

3. Increase knee range of motion

After your surgery, your knee will automatically lose the ability to bend and straighten as much as it had before. It is important to work on gaining both of these motions back quickly.

  • Bending your knee is known as flexion. To increase this motion, you can perform heel slides when you are lying on your back on the floor or your bed. Work on sliding your heel towards your hip until you feel a stretch along the front of your knee. You can also perform this while seated in a hard chair; again sliding the heel back until you feel a stretch and holding 5-10 seconds. Use the other leg to help with the push as you gain more motion.
  • The straightening motion is known as extension. This can be encouraged by not resting with a pillow under your knee only. If you find that your knee does not want to go completely straight, work on it by propping your heel up while you let gravity pull your knee down towards full extension. Work up to 5 to 10 minutes at a time, 2-3 times a day. A straight knee will ensure that you will walk with a normal pattern post-surgery.

4. Strengthen your quadriceps muscle

The muscle on the front of your thigh is called your quadriceps muscle. It functions to stabilize your knee and needs to be of ideal strength in order to do walking, stairs, bending, and squatting. Getting it back to full function quickly will help ensure that you will be back to your normal mobility. It is one of the most important factors in getting you back to work faster, especially if you have a job that requires you to be on your feet and active.
Quad strengthening exercises: Your physical therapist will give you exercises that will help to strengthen your quad. It is important to work on the exercises at home as prescribed by your PT to ensure that you are gaining strength in this key muscle of your knee.
Early weight bearing: Putting weight through your surgical knee by decreasing the use of your crutches automatically helps your quad muscle to return to its normal function. Trying not to favor that knee will encourage your quad to work as it is designed to and not be inhibited.
It is encouraging to know that a faster return to work is something that you have at least some control over. Following these tips can encourage a positive rehabilitation experience that will ideally shorten your recovery.

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