Why You Probably Don't Need Knee Surgery

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Whether you’re tearing down a rebound during a game of pick-up or out on a trail run, feeling your knee give way, lock up, or burn with pain is an athlete’s nightmare.

Until now, injuries to your meniscus — the rubbery discs that cushion the knee joint — have usually meant surgery is in order. But researchers in Norway and Denmark have discovered that a strength-training therapy can be just as effective as surgery when it comes to treating meniscus injuries, especially for middle-aged patients. As many as three out of four people could avoid knee surgery with the exercise program, the study authors estimate.

The study, published in the British Medical Journal, involved 140 patients, with an average age of 50. The participants suffered meniscus injuries and were treated by either supervised exercise or more costly surgery. Two years later, both groups of patients had fewer symptoms and improved knee function. Those who had exercised for recovery, though, had the added benefit of stronger thigh muscles.

The exercise treatment is best for those with wear-and-tear injuries. The researchers also found the exercise program holds promise in counteracting osteoarthritis, which occurs when the joint cartilage breaks down, causing pain, stiffness and the dreaded “locked” feeling when you’re running.

Acute injuries, which often occur in younger people who might, for example, twist a knee while skiing or hear a pop when they pivot wrong on the basketball court, still require surgery so the meniscus can continue to protect cartilage in the joint, says study co-author Lars Engebretsen, a professor at the University of Oslo and orthopedic surgeon at Oslo University Hospital in Norway.

“Younger patients should primarily have their meniscus injury repaired, or, as an alternative if repair is not possible, partly removed,” Engebretsen says.

Almost 2 million people a year undergo knee arthroscopy surgeries, according to the European researchers. To possibly save yourself from surgery, Engebretsen suggests you talk to your orthopedist about bike exercises and strength exercises you can perform to eliminate knee pain.