A meniscus tear is a rip in the cartilage inside your knee, often caused by a sudden, acute trauma, such as twisting your knee during sports. A degenerative tear -- which can happen during such everyday activities as walking or climbing stairs -- usually occurs as a result of aging or arthritis. Swimming can exacerbate the pain of a meniscus tear if the injury is untreated and unhealed, and can cause further damage. However, swimming can be helpful during rehabilitation, if undertaken when your doctor says it is safe.
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A meniscus tear is a rip in the C-shaped cartilage in your knee, which acts a shock absorber between the shin and thigh bone. It occurs in males two and a half times more frequently than in women, with the most common site being the posterior horn of the medial meniscus, located on the inside of the knee towards the back. Symptoms include swelling, along with stiffness and pain that worsens with squatting, pivoting and vigorous activities; in severe meniscus tears, instability -- in which the knee feels wobbly or loose -- may occur. In a complication known as "locked knee," torn meniscus fragments get caught in the joint and cause the knee to become immobile. If you think you have a meniscus tear, consult your doctor. He can diagnose a torn meniscus by physical examination; MRI and ultrasound may also be used.
Minor meniscus tears that are not locked or unstable can be treated with the R.I.C.E. method. Rest from the activity that caused the injury, apply an ice pack wrapped in a thin towel two to three times a day for 20 minutes at a time and keep your knee higher than your heart. You can also apply an elastic compression bandage. Reduce pain and swelling with over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medications, as long as you have no conditions that preclude their use. Knees that become locked or are unstable usually require arthroscopic surgery in which the meniscus is either repaired or removed. Full function can take up to four to five months to return.
Swimming and Aquatic Therapy
Swimming, which is both aerobic and low-impact, can play an important role in recovery from a torn meniscus. Rugby IQ recommends it as an alternate exercise to maintain fitness while your tear is healing; make sure your doctor or physical therapist approves the activity. Skylark Medical Clinic concurs, but notes that you should avoid the whip and frog kicks, both of which can stress the knees. Swimming also promotes recovery by helping to build up your quadriceps and hamstring muscles, thereby increasing flexibility and strength. In a regimen recommended by "Aquatic Therapy Programming," by Joanne M. Koury, swimming at different intensities is advised to treat meniscus tears. Exercises begin with swimming with no kicking and progress to performing scissor and dolphin kicks, or kicking with the legs together.
Weakness of the vastus medialis -- the inner thigh muscle, which is part of the quadriceps -- can contribute to knee problems. Doctors and sports physiologists agree that strengthening the quadriceps muscles is essential to avoid reinjuring the knee. According to Peak Performance Online, exercises should include squats, leg presses, lunges and leg extensions. Wearing appropriate footwear and learning the proper mechanics and techniques for pivoting and landing from a jump may also help reduce risk of injury.