Prevention. It’s always the best treatment.
Here are some key tips:
- Work yourself into shape slowly. It’s the most important element of prevention, particularly for weekend warriors who may be tempted to go all out without preparing themselves properly. It’s a growing problem, particularly for the baby boom generation; in fact, doctors have coined a new diagnosis – boomeritis – for the phenomenon. Use a graded exercise program to get into shape gradually, and then stay in shape all year round.
- Warm up before each exercise session and cool down afterwards.
- Stretch regularly. Exercise makes muscles strong, but they also get tight and short — stretching preserves flexibility and reduces the risk of injury.
- Use good equipment. It’s particularly important to have supportive, well-fitting shoes for weight-bearing activities.
- Use good technique. A few lessons or a little coaching can improve your mechanics as well as your performance.
- Don’t overdo it. Fatigue and dehydration impair concentration, often leading to a misstep or fall. Overuse is the major cause of injuries. Give your body a chance to rest and recover after workouts, particularly when you’re first getting into shape. Alternate hard sessions with easier ones. Vary your routine so that you use different parts of your body. Some people, for example, might walk one day, play tennis the next, and garden the third. A day off now and then doesn’t hurt, either.
Recognition. If prevention fails, early detection is the next line of defense. Be alert for symptoms. A bit of soreness and stiffness is normal, but pain, swelling, diminished strength or mobility, and discoloration of the skin is not. Spot small problems before they become big ones. If your problem seems small, treat it yourself. But if you don’t improve, or if you have a major injury, get expert help.
Many sports injuries feel the same, but there are important differences among them. Here is a glossary of some common problems:
Sprains. Injuries to ligaments, the fibrous connective tissues that connect one bone to another. In first-degree sprains, the ligament is stretched; in second-degree sprains, some fibers are torn; in third-degree sprains, most or all of the fibers are torn. In general, first-degree sprains produce only pain and swelling, second-degree injuries are often accompanied by weakness and bluish discoloration due to bleeding, and third-degree sprains produce severe weakness and decreased mobility.
Strains. Injuries to muscles or tendons, the fibrous tissues that connect muscles to bones. Commonly known as muscle pulls, strains also come in first-, second-, and third-degree varieties. Like sprains, strains are usually caused by a misstep or fall that places excessive force on a tendon or muscle, so that fibers are stretched or torn.
Tendinitis. Inflammation of a tendon, often caused by overuse or poor body mechanics. Pain is the major symptom, but warmth, swelling, and redness may occur. The pain is typically most severe at the start of exercise. It eases up during exercise, only to return with a vengeance afterward.
Fasciitis. Inflammation of the layer of fibrous tissue that covers many muscles and tendons. Overuse is often to blame. A common example is plantar fasciitis, inflammation of the sole of the foot, which plagues many walkers and runners.
Bursitis. Inflammation of the small, fluid-like sacs that cushion joints, muscles, or bones like miniature shock absorbers.
Arthritis and synovitis. Inflammation of a joint (arthritis) or the membrane that surrounds it (synovitis). Like bursitis, joint inflammation often occurs without being triggered by exercise, but both problems can also result from overuse or trauma. Pain and swelling (water on the knee, for example) are common symptoms.
Dislocations. Often very painful and disabling, dislocations occur when bones slip out of their proper alignment in a joint. A deformity is often visible, and the joint is unable to move properly. Although some athletes attempt to realign (reduce) a dislocation themselves, it should be done by a physician or highly experienced trainer or therapist.
Fractures. A disruption in the continuity and integrity of a bone. Except for broken toes and stress (hairline) fractures, nearly all fractures require skilled medical management.
Contusions. Bleeding into tissues caused by direct trauma — the black and blue.
Muscle cramps and spasms. Unduly strong and sustained muscle contractions that can be very painful (the charley horse). Gentle stretching will help relieve cramps; hydration and good conditioning help prevent them.
Lacerations and abrasions. Cuts and scrape. Small ones can be managed with soap and water and Band-Aids, but larger ones may require special dressings or sutures. Tetanus shots are not necessary if immunisations have been kept up to date with boosters every 10 years.
Injured tissues must be protected against further injury. Protect your small injuries by applying bandages, elastic wraps or simple splints. Something as easy as taping an injured toe to its healthy neighbor can do the job. See your doctor for problems that require precision splints or casts.
Injured tissues need time to heal. It’s an obvious principle, but once you’re hooked on exercise you may be tempted to ignore it. Don’t give in to temptation — you’ll shortchange yourself with shortcuts. You can rest selectively – you may have to give up tennis while your serving shoulder recovers from tendinitis, but you can still walk, jog, or hike. In a curious way, an injury is often a blessing in disguise, forcing you to diversify your workouts and acquire new skills.
It’s the cheapest, simplest, yet most effective way to manage many injuries. Ice is an excellent anti-inflammatory, reducing swelling and pain. For best results, apply an ice pack for 10 to 15 minutes as soon as possible after an injury. Repeat the ice treatment each hour for the first four hours, then four times a day for the next two to three days. Protect your skin with a thin cloth, and don’t allow your skin to become red, blistered, or numb. After 48 to 72 hours, switch to heat treatments, using the same schedule and principles.
Pressure will help reduce swelling and inflammation. In most cases, a simple elastic bandage will suffice and it should be snug but not too tight. Remember that swelling may develop slowly hours after your injury, so you may have to loosen your wrap. Another trick is to place a small piece of foam rubber directly on the injured area before you wrap it. This will allow you to put gentle pressure where it’s needed without constricting an entire joint or limb.
It’s a simple strategy that enlists the force of gravity to drain fluid away from injured tissues, reducing swelling, inflammation, and pain. Keep your sore foot or other limb up on a hassock or put a pillow under it in bed. Elevating an injured area will help you get back to earth faster.
PRICE is the key to the early management of most kinds of injuries, but you may also need medication for pain or inflammation. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, other brands) may be the best choice for the first day, since it will reduce pain without increasing bleeding. After the first day or two, consider aspirin or another nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (Advil, other brands). NSAIDs can irritate the stomach and cause bleeding, so for safety’s sake, take them with milk or food. Prolonged NSAID use can lead to other complications, so use the lowest dose that works and always follow directions.
Instead of an ice pack or warm pack, you can rub in an ointment that will make your tissues feel cool or warm. You can also buy liniments, gels, and ointments that contain anti-inflammatory medications. Topical anti-inflammatories are available without a prescription and they are much safer than oral anti-inflammatory medications. Anti-inflammatory ointments are very popular with patients, but doctors have been skeptical.
Liniments can be messy or irritating. Some have an unpleasant odor and many are expensive. If you want to use a liniment, start with one that contains an NSAID. Liniments are not cure-alls. Even if they reduce pain, they won’t help heal injured tissues. For that, you’ll need time, rest, and conventional medical therapy. So if a liniment helps, use it, but only as part of a complete program of protection, rest, and physical therapy.
The next step: Rehabilitation
Your pain is gone and your swelling is down — but your treatment is not yet over. Instead, plan your rehabilitation and return to exercise with the same care that you used to treat your injury. As a rule of thumb, give yourself two days of rehab for each day of inactivity due to injury. Start with gentle range-of-motion exercises, and then gradually increase your weight-bearing activities. When you are comfortable, consider building up your tissues with graded resistance training using calisthenics, light weights, or resistance equipment. If all goes well, you can be stronger than before your injury, thus reducing your risk of re-injury.
Don’t neglect stretching exercises to improve your flexibility. Use heat or massage to warm up your injured tissues before you start your rehab exercises. Apply ice to the area to reduce inflammation afterwards. The judicious use of aspirin or other NSAIDs may also facilitate your rehabilitation program.
You can manage many injuries yourself, but don’t be stubborn. If you have a major injury — or if you’re nagging woes don’t clear up — get help. An experienced exercise buddy who’s been there and done that may be all the help you need. Primary care physicians can handle many exercise-induced problems, but more difficult issues require orthopedists, physical therapists and sports podiatrists. In many centers, these specialists come together in sports medicine clinics.
The most dangerous thing about exercise is not doing it. True, injuries do happen — but don’t let the threat of problems become an excuse for taking to your couch. Instead, take the simple steps that will reduce your risk of exercise-induced injuries, become able to spot problems early, learn how to handle minor injuries on your own, and be prepared to get help when you need it. It’s easy to overcome simple injuries — but very hard to treat the major illnesses that stem from lack of exercise.