Physical Therapy for Meniscus Tears

Do you have a suspected meniscus tear? Do you feeling popping, clicking or locking in your knee joint?


What is the meniscus?

The meniscus is an extra layer of cartilage the provides cushion and support to the knee joint. There is a medial and lateral meniscus on the surface of the cartilage on the knee.  The cartilage and menisci of the knee help to spread out pressure on the knee joint. These structures are important for optimal knee function; however, these structures can get damaged.


What are common symptoms of a torn meniscus?

  • Popping, clicking, and locking of the knee
  • Tenderness to the joint line of the knee
  • Sharp, stabbing pain in the knee
  • Pain with twisting or bearing weight on the knee
  • Limitations with bending or straightening the knee

What causes a meniscus tear?

  • Traumatic accidents
  • Bending and twisting the knee awkwardly
  • Falling
  • Sports-related injuries
  • Poor training techniques
  • Normal age-related changes


What happens after a meniscus injury?

Meniscus tears usually occur while twisting aggressively with your body weight on a bent knee.

Initially, the knee is very painful and it may hurt to place weight or walk on the knee. If the pain does not go away within several days, then you should go to your doctor to have your knee checked out.

When you go visit a doctor, they usually order an x-ray unless there is clear indication to perform an MRI. MRIs are expensive and they are not necessary unless your healthcare provider clearly suspects a meniscus tear.


What can your doctor do for you?

Primary care physicians are trained to identify meniscus tears; however, they may refer you out to an orthopedic specialist for a more thorough evaluation. The orthopedic specialist has advanced training in diagnosing these types of injuries. They may use an ultrasound or MRI to determine if there is a meniscus tear.

The primary care physician and orthopedic specialist will usually refer you to see a physical therapist too. A physical therapist is also highly trained to recognize meniscus tears.


How can a physical therapist help with meniscus tears?

An examination by a physical therapist is another way to identify a suspected meniscus tear. A physical therapist will perform a series of tests to determine the presence of a meniscus tear without the use of an MRI; however, the MRI will be more accurate to detect the tear.

In most states in United States, you can schedule a visit directly with a physical therapist without a referral from your primary care doctor. A visit with a physical therapist is a great option because you can start rehab for the knee right away without waiting for a referral from your primary care doctor.


Do you need an MRI before starting physical therapy?

An MRI is not necessary before seeing a physical therapist. A physical therapist will determine your ideal treatment based on your response to movements.


What will a physical therapist do with you?

The physical therapist will analyze your mobility, strength, movement patterns and other factors that may be contributing to your pain.

Here are several treatment options a physical therapist can provide for you:

  • Joint mobilizations – Moving the joint with manual techniques to reduce pain and improve mobility
  • Range of motion exercises – Exercises to improve the mobility of the knee using various loads, repetitions, sets, frequency
  • Strength training – Increasing the strength of muscles that support the knee
  • Motor Control and Coordination – Improving your control of body movements to avoid stressing the knee
  • Stretching – Techniques to improve the mobility of the muscles around the knee
  • Taping – Using tape to influence a positive change in the nerves and muscles that control the knee


What happens if physical therapy is not helping?

If you are not making good progress with rehab exercises, then your physical therapist will refer you back to your primary care doctor or orthopedic specialist. Healthcare providers work closely together to determine the best treatment options for meniscus tears.


Do you want a handy, printable reference to educate you or your clients about meniscus tears?

Click Here to download and print.


Read the next article to find out how physical therapy compares to surgery for meniscus tears.

Physical Therapy vs. Surgery – Click here.



Thorlund, J. B., Juhl, C. B., Roos, E. M., & Lohmander, L. S. (2015). Arthroscopic surgery for degenerative knee: systematic review and meta-analysis of benefits and harms. BMJ (Clinical research ed.), 350, h2747. doi:10.1136/bmj.h2747



Dr. Marc Robinson, PT, DPT, Cert. MDT is a physical therapist based out of San Diego, California. He teaches individuals and health care providers how to manage pain and injuries better using evidence-based exercise and neuroscience. His approach empowers individuals to live an active life with greater freedom of movement.



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