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BEACON Senior News

Try these 5 alternatives to meniscus surgery

Aug 04, 2020 11:58AM ● By Carrie Lugar Slayback

I’d had sore knees before, but what sent me to my orthopedist was that I couldn’t straighten my leg. The doctor gazed at an X-ray of the painful knee.

“You have a slightly torn meniscus,” he said, “and you’re not a candidate for surgery.”

“Well, what can I do?” I asked.

“Here’s a physical therapy prescription,” he said, and I limped out.

I remembered my running friends who’d had meniscus surgery and wondered how many other doctors would’ve looked at my meniscus and said, “Operate.” I went online and found a 2017 National Institutes of Health article titled, “Why do surgeons continue to perform unnecessary surgery?”

“It is significantly safer to board a commercial airplane, a spacecraft, or a nuclear submarine, than to be admitted to a U.S. hospital,” the article read, because “medical errors currently rank as the third leading cause of death in the U.S.”

The article listed two unnecessary surgeries:

  1. Arthroscopic meniscus surgery is one of the most commonly performed surgical procedures—approximately 700,000 yearly in the U.S. A recently published trial found there was no benefit for patients who had their meniscus repaired.
  2. Spinal fusions for back pain do not lead to improved long-term patient outcomes compared to non-operative treatments, including physical therapy and core strengthening exercises. In spite of high-quality trials proving spinal fusion doesn’t help back pain, “spinal fusion rates continue to dramatically increase in the U.S.,” the article read.

Why would doctors perform these surgeries, possibly endangering their patients? According to the article, doctors said because that’s what they’ve been trained to do. Current Medicare reimbursement rewards doctors for surgery rather than spending time with diagnosis and nonsurgical treatments.

Shouldn’t we try everything before agreeing to surgery?

Try these approaches first:

Physical therapy

For me, PT was like having a personal trainer. I continue doing the exercises I learned even though I’ve completed therapy. It strengthened muscles around my knee, reduced pain, restored movement, and as an added benefit, I learned to work on balance. Balance protects against the dreaded fall, and a stronger knee keeps me moving.

Maintain a healthy weight

Dr. Frank B. Kelly, in an article for, wrote that “every pound of weight gained puts an extra four pounds of pressure on each of your knee joints…just a five-pound gain, would be like adding 20 pounds to each knee.” Extra weight can damage cartilage causing joint stiffness and swelling. Extra pressure can cause tendinitis and bursitis, which are both painful and potentially disabling. Subtracting pounds diminishes pain and promotes healing.

Tai Chi

The slow, low-impact movements cannot cause injury, and help painful fibromyalgia and chronic low back pain. Practicing Tai Chi contributes to balance while providing pathways for fluid to flow to cartilage.


Yoga is strength training without weights. Join a senior yoga class, and you’ll be surprised at how fast your body loosens up. Range of motion gained gives freedom of movement and the ability to prevent falls.

Light weight training

Sarcopenia is the loss of muscle mass and strength that comes with age. Lifting light weights two to three times a week can build muscle strength, preserve bone density and reduce the risk of osteoporosis and the symptoms of heart disease, arthritis, and type 2 diabetes. It can also help improve sleep and reduce depression.

I’m glad I didn’t have unnecessary meniscus surgery. At 76, I practice what I preach: weight training, aerobic exercise and yoga. Yesterday, I descended the stairs, dumbly looking at my phone, and slid down the last three stairs. I wasn’t hurt, but I made two promises: Don’t look at your phone while climbing stairs, and next time surgery is proposed, explore alternatives.