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CrossFit and Knees

CrossFit is a popular sports and exercise program designed to improve both strength and endurance. The program was developed by Gary Glassman years ago to enhance an individual’s competency in all physical tasks. Since CrossFit incorporates various forms of sports, such as running, gymnastics, weightlifting and rowing, orthopedic injuries are common.

One of the most commonly injured joints in the body is the knee. Two common knee injuries found in the CrossFit community include an MCL injury and meniscal tears. While many knee injuries can be avoided with proper exercise form and appropriate body conditioning, an awkward landing from a box jump or a heavy front squat can cause an athlete to become sidelined. Dr. Getelman is experienced in treating CrossFit athletic injuries to the knees and shoulders.

An MCL Injury in the CrossFit Community

The medial collateral ligament (MCL) is located on the inner side of the knee and is responsible for providing side-to-side stability to the joint during athletic activities. An athlete involved in CrossFit is at risk of an MCL injury when he or she performs a box jump or pivots too quickly during a running movement. An MCL injury is most commonly experienced during an awkward landing from any jumping movement, if the knee twists during any lifting exercise or if the knee is rotated sharply while the foot is planted on the ground.

When the MCL becomes damaged, athletes experience pain, bruising and swelling. If the injury is more severe, the joint may feel unstable when weight-bearing or walking.

Meniscal Tear in CrossFit Athletes

The meniscus is a wedge-shaped piece of cartilage found in the knee joint that acts as a “shock absorber” when the joint is put under stress. A meniscal tear is among the most common knee injuries, and can occur in several ways. Many tears occur in CrossFit athletes when a twisting action occurs while performing squatting movements, including front squats, back squats, squat power cleans and squat snatches. Athletes more often experience this injury when “coming in” as opposed to “pushing out” of a squat position.

Common symptoms of a torn meniscus include knee pain, swelling, stiffness, limited range of motion and a catching or locking sensation. Many CrossFit participants can recall the exact time when the injury occurs as they feel a tearing or popping sensation.  The pain may initially resolve but then overnight the knee becomes swollen and painful and the realization of the injury then sets in.

How an MCL Injury or Meniscal Tear can be Avoided

The risk of many knee injuries associated with CrossFit, including meniscal tears or MCL injury, can be reduced by proper movement patterns and exercise technique and allowing adequate recovery time between workout sessions. Athletes are encouraged to:

  • Control every movement while performing heavy squats
  • Never lift more weight than the body can handle
  • Land softly from any jumping movement
  • Integrate mobility WODs(Workout of the Day) and stretching into weekly routines
  • Reduce intensity on a few exercises during the week
  • Give the body time to recover by taking several days off each week so the muscles can regenerate

CrossFit Knee Injury Treatment Options

MCL Injury

Most cases of an MCL injury are treated with a non-surgical approach. Many injuries will heal with a combination of rest, bracing, activity modification, anti inflammatory medication and physical therapy. A surgical MCL reconstruction is rarely required except in more severe injuries involving an MCL tear and an associated ACL or PCL injury.

Meniscal Tear

Non-surgical treatment with the RICE (rest, ice, compression and elevation) method and anti-inflammatory medications are typically recommended for a meniscus tear not requiring a surgical repair.  Physical therapy may also be prescribed to help reduce the swelling, restore range of motion and to strengthen the knee joint. The meniscus has a very poor blood supply and consequently many meniscal tears do not heal. If the patient does not respond to conservative treatment, then surgery may be required. In those cases, Dr. Getelman typically recommends a minimally invasive, arthroscopic procedure known as a meniscal repair or meniscectomy depending on the pattern and location of the tear.

Have you experienced an MCL injury or meniscal tear during CrossFit? Do you need advice on how to recover? Do you want more information on preventing Crossfit knee injuries? Leave a comment below!

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6 Comments

  1. Josh A. February 27, 2017 at 8:06 pm - Reply

    I was doing box jumps and came down and landed incorrectly. I had slight pain and a little swelling initially after in my right knee. I avoided lower body movements and minimized impact for about a week and now it’s starting to feel better. How long should I wait before I go back to my normal workouts?

    • Mark Getelman, MD February 27, 2017 at 8:20 pm - Reply

      Hi Josh,

      Thank you for your question. I would recommend gradually getting back to activity over the next 2 weeks. If there is any recurrent pain, swelling, catching or locking then you need to stop the activity. I would then recommend you see your doctor for evaluation. An MRI may be ordered to better assess the joint.

      Mark Getelman, MD

  2. Nat January 18, 2018 at 11:56 pm - Reply

    Hi, I injured my MCL in a non-gym accident. It has been 7 weeks and I have gone through some physical therapy and such. I met with my doctor today and he said I can go back to the gym as long as I wear my brace (Function hinged brace) however his knowledge of CrossFit like workouts are limited. I am wondering what I can do to scale workouts that would but dangerous or hard to accomplish while wearing a brace,

    • Mark Getelman, MD January 31, 2018 at 6:19 pm - Reply

      Hi Nat,

      We are sorry to hear about your injury. I recommend avoiding box jumps or any jump landing activities. I also suggest avoiding any twisting or pivoting.

      Thank you!

  3. Robert February 14, 2018 at 1:43 am - Reply

    Hello. I started experiencing some knee swelling and a little limited range of motion. No pain. And I could still squat, clean snatch etc at weights I did before the swelling. Went to the Ortho and got an MRI. Was diagnosed with a tear in the meniscus and according to the Dr a very slight tear of the ACL. He recommends removing the meniscus and that’s it. I’m 43 and have a heavy workout schedule. Thinking about getting a second opinion. Can my meniscus be repaired instead of removed and should I have the ACL attended to. Thanks.

    • Mark Getelman, MD February 14, 2018 at 9:31 pm - Reply

      Hi Robert,

      We are sorry to hear about your injury. It will depend on the pattern and location of the meniscal tear.At 43, most tears occur in the white white zone that is typically irreparable and will require resection of the torn fragment. Those that are in the red white or red red zone may be repairable. It doesn’t appear that the mechanism of injury would suggest a significant tear to the ACL and observation of the ACL may well be indicated. A second opinion is often a good idea to see if there is consistency as to the treatment recommendation.

      Thank you,
      Dr. Getelman

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