Sports doctors typically give the same advice: Keep moving. That doesn’t mean working out hard during the most painful phase of an injury or joint flare-up.
The idea is to stay relatively active — to “train around” the injury while it takes its own sweet time to heal. If you do this, you’ll experience very little loss in conditioning and will return to normal training faster than those who end up giving up entirely.
The injuries that can put you out of commission may be either minor (muscle strain) or major (torn ligament). You can’t always tell which is which from the pain level: They can all hurt like hell.
Obviously, if you can’t move a particular limb, you would call that “major.” As for those minor, dull aches — ignore them at your peril. Even when they aren’t all that painful at the beginning, they can quickly get worse.
Be sure to check with your doctor. Same goes for persistent joint pain. If you normally hurt a little, and then suddenly you hurt a lot, talk to a pro.
In the meantime, here are the main things you need to do in the initial stages of pain.
- Treat it the injury fast. Swelling and inflammation are your enemies when you have a sprain or strain. The longer you take to treat inflammation, the worse the damage will be, and the longer your recover time — and the greater your loss of conditioning.
The first-time treatment for a lifting or sport injury is R.I.C.E.: rest, ice, compression, and elevation. Rest means to stop doing whatever caused the injury.
Apply ice for about 20 to 30 minutes every hour or so. Compress the area by wrapping it with an elastic bandage. This will help reduce swelling. Finally, elevate the hurt area above the area of your heart.
Never apply heat to an injury in the first day or two. It will increase the swelling.
- Pamper pain … and keep training. Maybe your shoulder’s screaming with a bursitis flare-up, or you’ve pulled a muscle in your hip or groin. There’s probably inflammation in there, and some tissue damage. Let it heal for a while. Don’t work it. In the meantime, keep training the parts of your body that aren’t hurt.
Take that shoulder injury. You might not be able to train your upper body for a few days, but you can still work your legs. Or you can modify your workouts — doing exercises seated or lying down instead of standing, for example — so that you put less pressure on the injured joint or muscle.
This is a good time to take advantage of tubing, cables, or machines. They’re usually easier to use than free weights when you have an injury.
- Work the opposite limb. Studies show that you can reduce conditioning loss in an injured arm or leg by working the “good” arm or leg. Can’t do curls with your right arm? Go ahead and work the left.
While you’re at it, try to gently work the right arm, even if you can only move it a few inches through your normal range of motion. If you feel pain you’ve gone too far. Short of pain, any movement will help prevent loss of conditioning and will speed up recovery.
- Get a massage. It can dramatically speed the healing of muscle injuries. Wait a few days after the injury before getting a massage. Doing it too soon will increase circulation and inflammation.
Of course there are a few tip-offs that tell you when an injury is more than just an annoyance — that you really need to see a doctor:
- Joint pain that lasts for more than 48 hours. Remember, some joints — the knee, ankle, elbow, and writs — aren’t covered by muscle. Pain in these areas can’t be dismissed as “just a strain.”
- Tender points: If it really hurts when you press your finger into a specific point over a bone, muscle, or joint, you may have a significant injury.
- Clicking sounds within a joint. This typically occurs when tendons snap over one another after they’ve been pushed into a new position by swelling. Underlying swelling and inflammation are potentially serious.
- Comparative weakness. Lift or press the same weight with your right and left sides. If you’re significantly weaker on one side than the other following an injury, you could have done real damage.
- Numbness and tingling. They’re often caused by nerve compression. Anything affecting the nerves is risky. See a doctor immediately.
No one get through this life without pain. Common sense says that taking a few days off from your regular routine is the smart thing to do. But it doesn’t mean you have to stop training completely.