Meniscus tears & surfing

Tearing your meniscus while surfing can be one of the most agonising injuries you’ll ever experience. Dragging yourself up the beach or rocks as your knee spasms can bring even the hardiest surfers to tears.

I experienced this first hand recently and my knee still doesn’t feel 100% 3 weeks on. Let’s take a closer look at what a meniscus tear is, how it happens, and how we can treat it to reduce your time out of the water.

What is a meniscus tear?

Meniscus tears are common occurrences in a contact sport. It’s caused by forceful rotation of the knee, particularly when at full extension. Unfortunately a lot of the manoeuvres performed while you surf put your knee under strain at full extension.

Your shinbone and your thigh bone also known as your femur and tibia are protected by 2 c shaped bits of cartilage known as the menisci. These pieces act as a cushion between the two bones allowing your knee to work effectively.

The menisci allow weight to be properly transferred from one bone to the other while walking or running and play a critical part in knee stability alongside the kneecap otherwise known as the patella.

Tearing either of these bits of cartilage can lead to extreme pain stiffness swelling and lack of mobility.

Indicators you’ve torn your meniscus

Damaging your knee is a very real possibility as you start to surf larger and more powerful waves. There’s a whole range of ways you can damage and strain the internal workings of your knee but some of the clear indicators you’ve torn your meniscus include:

  • Popping noise or sensation immediately as it happens
  • Locked knee or decrease in range of motion
  • Severe swelling

How can you tear your meniscus surfing?

Meniscus tears are one of the most common knee injuries, particularly in sports. Contact sports like rugby football and hockey all increase the chance of tearing your meniscus.

Surfing is no different and many movements in surfing require you to put a lot of stress on your knee cap during full extension of the leg.

Personally, I’ve been watching John bells and thought I could drop my wallet (lay back snap) like the best of them. Needless to say, I can’t nail surf tricks like the pros!

In reality, I jammed my board into the face of the wave, it stuck under the water and my knee made a loud pop noise followed by pain that I really can’t describe. After muttering words I can’t repeat here I managed to body surf into the shore on my board and crawl slowly up the beach.

Within minutes my kneecap began to swell up to the size of a grapefruit. Pain shot up and down my leg mercilessly as I tried to straighten the joint with absolutely no joy.

How to recover from a meniscus tear

The most important thing is to end your surf as soon as you suspect you’ve injured yourself.

You might be able to continue surfing after a minor tear but it will vastly increase your healing time and could cause further damage to the cartilage.

Try to avoid putting any weight on the injured knee, if you are surfing with someone else, ask them to help you up the beach. Driving can be painful with a tear and if you don’t feel comfortable putting pressure on your injured knee you need to arrange alternative transport.

Immobile your leg as soon as possible and apply the standard RICE treatment for strains and sprains.

The RICE treatment

  • Rest
  • Ice
  • Compression
  • Elevation

Use an ice pack or a bag of frozen food to apply cold to your knee, this will reduce swelling and loss of your range of movement.

Use a knee support or a compression bandage on your knee and elevate it above your heart with cushions. This will reduce any throbbing pain you are experiencing.

Hot baths and hot water bottles

In the days following your meniscus tear, you can use heat to help you stretch your knee and reduce stiffness. Sitting in a hot bath and moving your knee from compressed to fully extended is much easier in warm water.

The next steps

If you’ve torn your meniscus you should always seek advice from a medical professional. Some tears on the outside of your knee cap will heal but tears on the inside of your knee receive less blood flow and may not heal at all.

A doctor can recommend the best course of action which will typically be an MRI to identify if surgery is required.

Surgery for meniscus tears is a fairly simple procedure and is one of the most common knee surgeries.

Surfing after a meniscus tear

Start out slow when you’re first getting back on your surfboard. Consider going out for some sessions in small waves on a foamie or longboard before heading out on your shortboard.

You can always spend some time on the beach doing some light squats and leg stretches to reduce the chance of any tweaks or strains while you’re surfing.

If you’re not confident in your knee’s stability consider high-quality knee support that you can fit under your wetsuit for some extra peace of mind.

Can you surf with a meniscus tear?

Yes, ensure you complete all the required steps to rehabilitate your meniscus before going surfing. Surfing too early in the healing process can reinjure the knee and extend your time out of the water.

How long after meniscus surgery can I surf?

You can surf as quickly as 2 weeks after your surgery but always check with your medical consultant before entering the ocean after a meniscus tear.

Can you swim with a meniscus tear?

Yes, swimming is a fantastic way to strengthen your knee without putting pressure on the joint. Avoid breaststroke as the kicking motion can put a strain on your meniscus. Opt for gentle front crawl/ freestyle with or without a kickboard.