For a lot of us, running isn’t just exercise. It’s a habit, a therapy of sorts, that makes it hard to live without putting one foot in front of the other.
Unfortunately, this puts you and me at a higher risk for meniscal injuries. So, you might be asking: “Can you run with a torn meniscus?”
The short version here is that yes, you could. But, a more accurate answer would be that it depends on how your body responds to the meniscus tear and how significant the injury is. Let’s get into better detail, shall we?
Can you run with a torn medial meniscus?
Just so we’re on the same page, you should know that you have 2 menisci:
- The medial meniscus located on the inner part of your knees, and
- The lateral meniscus which is on the outer part of the joint
Medial tears are significantly more common than lateral tears but coping with either of them are largely similar.
That said, let’s circle back to how severe your injury is and ask yourself these questions:
Does your knee feel unstable?
The bones of your knees, more specifically your shin bone and thigh bone, aren’t perfectly congruent to each other. But, this incongruency is solved thanks to the wedge shape of both your menisci which allows your knee to move as smoothly as it normally does. The meniscus also acts as a natural shock absorber.
So, when you feel any instability in your knee joint – like it’s locked in place when you try to move it or if it buckles when you put your weight on it – this likely means that your meniscus has been damaged enough to compromise your knee’s conformity.
Does the pain increase with activity?
Again, this goes back to the primary functions of your menisci: adding shock absorption and congruency to your knee.
Essentially, jogging, running, climbing the stairs, or even just walking inherently puts a lot of stress on your knee. There’s even research that says you put up to three times your body weight on the joint while walking normally.
Your menisci takes this weight and disperses the pressure more evenly to minimize stress.
That being said, meniscus tears are often accompanied by pain, so it isn’t necessarily the most telling symptom. What should bother runners like you, however, is if an increase in your activity level hikes up the pain. For example, when your knee joint feels more painful when you’re running versus walking.
This may mean that your meniscus injury is severe enough to where it doesn’t distribute your weight as effectively as it normally should, leading to excessive forces to certain points in your knee.
Is your knee’s movement limited?
Any injury to soft-tissue (e.g. meniscus, ligaments, tendons, etc) can cause swelling. Now, how severe this swelling is, is key.
Generally, pain is also amplified when there’s more inflammation but a severely inflamed joint will also lose a bit of its mobility because of the excess fluid.
If you answered “yes” to the questions above, then you shouldn’t run.
Instability, more pain with increased activity, and limited range of motion are all indications that the injury to your knee might not be as small as you’d hoped.
To be sure, I think it’s important that you get a proper diagnosis from your doctor even before you think about returning to running.
Just a heads up, though, you will likely undergo an X-ray and MRI. This is so your doctor can get a good look at the meniscus injury and determine the best course of action.
But, if you answered “no” to all the questions, then whether or not you continue running is up to you.
If you can tolerate the pain, running isn’t a bad idea but do so with caution. Also, consider using knee sleeves. Theoretically, this helps minimize pain and inflammation while giving you a better sense of stability and helping to regulate blood supply to the injured cartilage.
By now, you might be asking:
Can I make a meniscus tear worse if I run on it?
Like the previous questions, it depends.
No, you likely won’t make your tear worse by running.
But this only applies if you have a degenerative type of meniscus injury – or the kinds of tears that happen through wear and tear.
Dr. Howard J. Luks, an orthopedic surgeon and himself an avid runner, describes it best when he says that the degenerative process on your menisci has been on-going for maybe the past decade, so you likely won’t damage your cartilage even more by running.
Though, again, run with caution and listen to your body.
Yes, you could worsen your injuries if you don’t hit the brakes.
This applies to acute or traumatic injuries. These are the kinds of tears where you can point out a single instance where you think the injury happened. Like running on a curved road and suddenly feeling a “pop” in your knee, for example.
The main reason I say this is that there have been several studies that show how it’s fairly common that acute meniscal tears also come with torn ACLs – and running could cause even more damage because of the instability from having those injuries.
Moreover, research has associated running on these types of tears with an increased risk of developing osteoarthritis.
How long after a meniscus tear can I run?
Like everything else I just talked about, returning to running after a meniscus tear is different from person to person. Generally, though, you’d need a minimum of 6 weeks to maybe 3 months to heal depending on whether or not you had surgery.
Regardless, this recovery period isn’t just about waiting. Rather, it should be spent improving so you reduce your chances of suffering the same injury again.
According to Competitive Edge Physical Therapy, it’s important that you use this time to strengthen your hips and quads as well as training to improve your mechanics.
Your knee also has to move painlessly throughout its full range of motion especially through a few basic exercises like squats and hops.
Can you exercise with torn meniscus?
Yes. As a matter of fact, a study from Sports Medicine found out that about 31% of athletes had some sort of damage to their meniscus and they didn’t feel any different. So, you might have had a tear on either of your knees before you even read this.
Plus, controlled exercise is a key part of the entire return-to-running rehab process. Though I recommend streamlining your training more towards improving your core, hips, and leg strength, and balance to both your injured knee and healthy leg.
Cross training might also be a good idea to keep yourself active without necessarily abusing your knee.
Can you run after a meniscus surgery?
Most times, yes. Rarely, no.
A report from one of the leading orthopedic hospitals in the U.S., the Hospital for Special Surgery (HSS), says that a good majority of people who go in for meniscus surgery are able to run again without too high a risk for developing arthritis.
Some of the rare times you can’t are if there was little to no improvement to your knee following surgery or if you have severe arthritis.
Nevertheless, it’s always best to consult your doctor as they know more about the specifics of your case.
Should you stay off a torn meniscus?
If it’s an acute/traumatic meniscus tear with significant swelling, pain, limited range of motion, and instability, yes, please stay off your feet and see your doctor. The symptoms I just mentioned could be indicative of a significant tear or a compound injury and playing through this could cause more damage.
For degenerative meniscus tears, the best advice I can give is to go by feel. You probably won’t accelerate the degenerative process by running but there will be days where your knee just doesn’t feel right.
On those days, maybe pass on the long, marathon-like activities. Or, better yet, stay home and rest.
At this point, you should already have the answer to the question: “Can you play with a torn meniscus?”
Just to give you a short recap though, it all depends on the severity and kind of tear you have – and both can be inferred based on your symptoms. If you can point out when and how the injury happened, that’s likely an acute tear. If it’s been slowly getting worse, it’s probably degenerative.
With acute tears, you likely have to stop running for a weeks or months so the cartilage can fully heal. But, if you’re a runner with a degenerative tear, the odds are better that you can continue running.
In both cases, pain with increased activity, limited range of motion, and instability are signs of a possible signifcant tear. If you’re unsure, the best advice I can give is to see your doctor so he can order an X-ray and MRI.