Nothing sidelines your workouts like nagging knee pain. Or worse, a torn ACL or meniscus. Sometimes surgery is inevitable, and unless you’re Adrian Peterson, recovery can be excruciatingly slow, not to mention spendy, and there’s always a chance you won’t return to full fighting form. So here’s something to consider before going under the knife: A new study published in the ‘New England Journal of Medicine’ in March found that physical therapy is just as effective as surgery for healing meniscal tears or mild to moderate knee osteoarthritis.
Researchers assigned 351 people to either a surgery or physical therapy group with the condition that if those getting physical therapy didn’t feel it was working, they could switch over and get surgery. Some patients went that route within the first six months, but even so, as a whole, after six to 12 months, both groups saw surprisingly similar results. The people who received physical therapy recovered just as well as the surgery patients, yet they got to skip the invasive procedure and crazy-high costs.
Of course, every case is different, but according to Dr. Edward Laskowski, co-director of the Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine Center in Rochester, Minnesota, many types of knee injuries tend to be treatable without surgery, including MCL, PCL, and cartilage tears. However, Laskowski says ACLs, once torn, don’t knit back together very well, so if you play aggressive, high-impact sports such as football, reconstruction may be the best bet. “But even if you’re an avid swimmer or cyclist, you might do fine without surgery, since those sports don’t require as much ACL use,” he explains.
As a general rule, Laskowski says if you’re experiencing major pain but can move your leg, consider physical therapy first. “If you have good range of motion, physical therapy may very well settle down the symptoms over time,” he says.