Common Workout Injuries: Identify, Recover, Avoid

Injuries happen to everyone, regardless of experience, flexibility, or strength. We are all likely to notice aches, but how do you know when you are actually injured, and what can you do about the injury? Don’t let common exercise injuries get in the way of your goals and sanity.

We’ve all heard the “no pain, no gain” mantra, but in this personal trainer’s opinion, adopting that slogan is only going to guarantee injury. Discomfort and fatigue are much better measurements of pushing your limits than pain, and, when coupled with adequate rest and nutrition, discomfort and fatigue yield results. The first step in determining if you are actually injured is to understand the difference between pain and discomfort.

Discomfort is that fleeting feeling you get as you push for one more rep, one more sprint, or one less second on the clock. That quaking feeling in your muscles, that bearable burn, that moment that makes you question if you can hold out. Discomfort is the precursor to pain. Discomfort is pre-injury, and the amount of recovery that is necessary is dependent on how close to that injury-point that you are.

Pain occurs alongside injury, though the degree of injury and the extent of recovery will vary. Pain might be as obvious as a pop in your muscle (indicating a tear) or an acute twist of the joint, or it might be a bit less obvious, such as prolonged muscle soreness that impedes your movement and range of motion. Pain is generally more acute than discomfort; discomfort is generally more fleeting and abates quickly with rest. Sometimes the line between pain and discomfort can be thin. Consequently, if you are newer to a sport or exercise in general, it is best to err on the side of caution until you know your body and its signals.

So how can you prevent common fitness injuries in order to live your happiest and most pain-free life? Start by knowing the common fitness injuries and determining which you are most susceptible to. Do you have any previous injuries? Do you work at a desk job or a job where you have to stand all day? Do you lift heavy boxes, or type? What type of shoes do you wear at work?

Thinking over these questions can help you nail down if you might be at risk for a lumbar spine injury (sitting at a desk, lifting heavy boxes), wrist injuries (typing), Achilles Tendinitis or ankle sprain (high heels or unsupportive shoes), hamstring strains (sitting or maintaining the same stance all day), and so on.

Next, you need to educate yourself on proper form, exercise sequencing, and weight progression. Working with a personal trainer, even for a few sessions, can make an enormous difference in educating you on how to do all of these things while getting you on the right track towards your fitness goals. Use that time to ask questions. How many sets and reps? How do I build a circuit? What is a superset? Knowing how to properly build and execute a workout is invaluable in preventing injury.

If you do get injured, don’t throw in the towel and give up on everything, but also resist the impulse to ignore the pain and try to just fight through. An injury treated quickly and properly from the start is going to heal so much faster than an injury that you deny, resist, and under-rest. RICE (Rest, Ice, Compression, Elevation) has long been the standard of treatment immediately following injuries, and for good reason. RICE gives you the best chance of stopping further damage by offloading the injured area, reducing inflammation, supporting the injury, and promoting circulation.

Rest and offloading the injury is the first step in treating it. Offloading means to literally avoid putting any load on the injured area. If you have an injured foot, try to stay off it for a few days by resting or even using crutches. Injured bicep muscle? You might be looking at a sling, but at the very least, avoid picking up anything with that arm for a few days. A few days of offloading the injured area will not result in atrophy sufficient to prevent a return to normal function and strength within a few days or a week. Immobilization longer than a week or two might require adding a few physical therapy rehabilitation exercises to your routine and coming back a bit more conservatively.

Ice in the first 24-48 hours after an injury can help reduce inflammation. Try to avoid NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory Drugs), which have been shown to impede blood flow to the injured areas. If you are in a great deal of pain, reach for NSAIDs. After the first 24-48 hours, ice is only recommended for pain management – not anti-inflammatory benefits. You might be better served by alternating heat to improve circulation and ice for pain management. Remember to protect your skin when administering either.

Compression helps support the affected area as part of the offloading. It improves circulation and works to reduce swelling. Compression may also help bring muscle fibers together as healing commences. The amount of compression around the injury should be firm, but not constricting.

Compression is especially helpful if you have an area of the body that can’t really be elevated by promoting improved circulation, much like compression stockings help to prevent blood clots (that is the amount of compression that is beneficial). Alternatively, elevation is important, particularly for extremities, and improves circulation by preventing blood from pooling in the affected area.

As healing progresses, you can start to “load” the injured area again, but remember, rest is best! That said, you want to continue to encourage blood flow to the affected area. For muscular injuries, you might consider going for a massage to help promote blood circulation, to help realign muscle fibers, and break down scar tissue.

How to Encourage Recovery

Wear supportive, but not constricting clothing, especially during the first days following the injury.

Massaging the area around the injury during the first few days, and on the injury area itself after several days, has been proven to encourage the breakdown of scar tissue, better blood circulation, and thus healing of the injury.

Focus on sleep and sleep quality, as sleep is the time when your body will do the greatest amount of healing.

Focus on nutrition. Rather than drowning your sorrows, fuel your recovery with lean proteins, complex carbohydrates, and healthy fats.

Knowing how much time to take off can be tricky, but waiting a good 24-48 hours after complete cessation of symptoms (pain) is a good place to start. When coming back from an injury, start first with mobility work and light stretching to re-engage the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Examples of this type of mobility work include shoulder, wrist, ankle, and neck circles, gentle yoga flows, and lifts and exercises that use the affected muscles/joints as secondary, rather than primary, movers.

After a few days of returning to exercise but without pain, you can start to return to your usual schedule, though perhaps keep the routine a bit shorter and incorporate rests. Injuries are disappointing, but they don’t have to stop you in your tracks for long. Knowing your injury tendencies and working to prevent them is the best injury treatment of all!