Playing the Pain Game
Any fitness enthusiast worth his/her salt has had to learn to deal with several types of pain. Workouts and soreness go hand in hand, especially when you first start a new program. Who hasn’t experienced walking on their tip-toes all day because of sore calves, or dreaded sitting down to pee because your quads and butt feel like they want to snap after a hard leg day. There is another kind of pain looming in every gym-goers future… the wrong kind. The pain that goes hand in hand with an injury. Lets talk about how to manage that kind of hurt.
The first thing to know is that getting hurt in a gym, or in any kind of sport is inevitable. It’s going to happen. Everyone who has been around your chosen activity long enough will have many stories to tell, with the wisdom of prevention and treatment to go along with it. This ranges from smashed fingers caught by a weight, to pulled muscles, to ligament, tendon and cartilage damage.
The more experienced gym-rats live by a rule… “Run away to Lift another Day”! In short, this means that if you are being very observant while you exercise, you can catch an injury before it becomes too great. An example is of a client doing squats with correct form, feeling a pop in the knee or back, and letting the weight come down to the safety pins without forcing the weight back to the rack catches. This client used common sense to observe anything out of the ordinary for a well practiced squat motion and chose to end the exercise quickly and safely. This is a wonderful way to minimize potential damage and monitor the concerned area for a true injury.
I encourage all my clients to be very “in tune” with their bodies as they lift to be able to catch injuries as they develop. When something doesn’t feel right, stop immediately and safely without forcing any more reps and look at the hurt area closely. If the pain persists, stop using that bodypart for the day. Monitor the bodypart for a few days; a minor tissue injury should heal or well on its way to feeling better in 2-3 days. This is a good sign of a healthy body healing properly. Strained ligaments or tendons can take 2-3 weeks to feel better; they heal slower than muscle tissue. Any issues in the feet, knees, shoulders, neck and spine that last longer than 2 weeks should be monitored by a physician for a potentially more serious condition.
When a body begins to feel better following an injury, test it out lightly and slowly with an exercise that you know well. Don’t push it for a week or two. The rule is “Stimulate, don’t Annihilate” to get your body to heal after an injury. A light workout with some discomfort (limited) can actually help a muscle or joint heal fully, but if the pain worsens its time to back off the injury again. It’s not necessary to always wait until all pain is gone from an injury, and working though light pain can actually speed recovery, but this should be done very carefully and lightly. Use good judgment, and ask a therapists advice if you have questions.
In order to catch a potential injury early and limit the damage, make sure you do plenty of warmup sets or exercises at the beginning of your workout and really pay attention to how your body is “talking” to you. If you feel something out of the ordinary, work it carefully at first and be progressive about the buildup of intensity for that bodypart. A healthy response is for the tenderness to diminish as your sets progress. Stop the exercise if pain begins to grow in intensity. Use good judgment to discern between the “muscle burn” that is appropriate with working a muscle to fatigue, and the pain of a strained or torn tissue.
If you think you have a potential injury, watch for discoloration (ie. subdermal bleeding that will look like a deep and spreading bruise) and/or significant swelling at the injury site. Both are ready indications that real damage was done to tissue, and you will want to monitor and baby the injury. Its never a bad idea to have this kind of visibly inflamed injury inspected by a physician or therapist.
If an injury doesn’t completely heal, or becomes repeatedly aggravated, it can progress from an acute stage into a chronic condition that can last many weeks (even becoming semi-permanent). To prevent an injury from becoming chronic, its best to have a therapist advise you on how to work through the injury to stimulate its ability to heal properly. Most therapists will recommend a mixture of light exercise of the injury, combined with rest, elevation and possible limited cold therapy administration.
Lastly, if you find yourself always moving from one injury to another (accident prone?), have an experienced trainer look at your exercise program. Its common for gym enthusiasts to fall in love with certain exercises that overly develop popular agonist muscles (think chest and biceps) without balancing the less popular antagonist muscles like the rhomboids or hamstrings. He/She will ensure that you are working your body in a balanced way with the right intensity.
In summary, have fun out there active people. Work hard and be aggressive with your programs; but please, be attentive to what your body is telling you. Accept the good pain, work through soreness, and catch the bad injuries early. If you have any concerns, never hesitate to talk to your physician, therapist, or trainer. Chances are, we’ve seen what you’ve done to yourself a few times by now.