As athletes we know that the mind and body are capable of more than most realize or acknowledge. We know what it feels like to push ourselves when our body starts to ache and our mind tells us to quit. We pride ourselves on being able to just “suck it up” and get the job done. These are great qualities that help us to achieve our goals, but sometimes that same tenacity and perseverance can lead to trouble.
As a coach I often have conversations with athletes about the “niggles” that pop up here and there. It is important to be able to accurately assess the severity and determine whether it is just a little tightness that can be worked out at home or whether it is the start of something more serious that is or might turn into injury. I will say that the best defense is a strong offense, meaning focusing on prevention (pre-hab) is one of the best things we can do to help remain injury free. In cases where pain does arise, here are some tips to help assess and address the issue.
RICE is your friend
R.I.C.E. which stands for Rest, Ice, Compression, and Elevation is typically a good first line of defense for just about anything. Especially the rest part. Don’t push through pain. Try to manage initial inflammation (and pain) with ice, compression, and elevation.
Stretching and rolling is not a cure all
Stretching warm muscles and rolling is advisable for tightness, but NOT advisable for pulls, strains, and tears because it could cause more damage and inflammation. If you can’t tell the difference, see a healthcare professional before doing either.
Sharp pain, swelling, and numbness or tingling are red flags
For sharp pain, bruising, anything with significant swelling, or numbness and tingling you should see a healthcare professional as soon as possible. If you have pain during normal activities, pain that keeps you up at night, or pain that is significant enough that you need to take something for it, you should probably see a doctor sooner rather than later–meaning make that call within a couple days if pain isn’t subsiding.
Act sooner rather than later
If pain is not getting better with complete rest after a few days, consider seeing a healthcare professional for evaluation. Do not try to run through pain unless you are keen on adding time to your recovery.
Fool me once…
If you have pain that comes back after being “healed” by rest, see a healthcare professional. Don’t try to deal with a chronic issue yourself. See someone and figure out the cause. The more times you trigger the same injury the more likely you are to do permanent damage.
Don’t waste time
If you don’t start to see progress with a healthcare professional after a couple of weeks, get imaging, get a second opinion, or both. Don’t spend months with someone who isn’t helping you heal. Don’t worry about offending the doctor. This is about YOU and your recovery. You have to be an advocate for yourself.
They tried to make me go to rehab…
If you are seeing a doctor who treats structural injuries (ortho, podiatrist, etc) and not a movement specialist (physical therapist), make sure to see the latter once the former “releases” you. Your initial injury may be healed, but you most likely will need some attention to help with any muscle imbalance and compensation patterns that developed while you were injured. This part is the most often overlooked piece and the reason why many athletes will end up in an injury spiral, in my humble opinion.
Treat the cause not just the symptoms
Maybe most importantly of all, once the initial acute reaction has resolved be sure to figure out the cause and treat that. (Unless the cause was just some freak accident.) Otherwise you are very likely going to end up injured again. I see this over and over again with athlete friends. If you don’t treat the underlying cause you are just going to end up back in the same place over and over again. Again, the more times you trigger the same injury the more likely you are to do permanent damage.
As a coach it can be challenging to get an athlete to admit they need help from a healthcare professional and make that first appointment. Once they finally make it into the office, I typically hear from them “I wish I would have done this sooner!” Making an appointment to see someone can be challenging mentally because it can feel like you are admitting that something is really wrong and that you may need to cut back on training for awhile. Let me offer you this alternate perspective, though. The sooner you go to a pro (ortho, podiatrist, physical therapist) the sooner your recovery and rehab can start and the sooner you can get back to training. Worst case scenario you go and they immediately tell you to rest and that recovery period starts at that moment instead of being delayed for weeks because you were stubborn. Best case scenario you go in and they say it should heal on it’s own and you have the peace of mind of knowing that. It really is a win, win.
I’m not trying to say that you should run to the doctor every time you have a little niggle. What I am saying is that it is important to properly assess and to not delay that hard decision. Heading to a healthcare professional for assistance shouldn’t feel like defeat, it should feel optimistic because you are getting help.
Have you ever put off heading in to see someone for something and regretted it later? Would love for you to share your experiences!