Nobody wants to deal with an injury, however major or minor. But people who are active and regularly engaged in athletic pursuits know all too well that injuries are part of the routine — no matter how much care one takes.
When those inevitable injuries do strike, however, not everybody reacts the same way. Some people opt for the cautious approach of scaling back workouts and other physical activities to give the body time to recover; others subscribe to the old no-pain-no-gain philosophy by gritting their teeth to stick to their fitness regimens.
Though it would be easy to characterize those in the former group as prudent and those in the latter as reckless, the truth is that neither approach is entirely right or wrong. In fact, like many other aspects of wellness, the right answer varies from person to person — and, in this case, from injury to injury.
“The main rule is to listen to your body,” says Scott Sparks, co-owner of CrossFit 219 in Munster. “Pain is your body’s way of telling you that something is wrong, so if your body is telling you not to do a particular movement, you should look for an alternative. Ninety percent of our adult lives we are not at 100 percent, and nagging injuries increase as you age, so the ability to recruit different muscles to perform daily activities is crucial.”
Dr. Joseen Bryant, a sports medicine specialist on staff at Community Hospital in Munster, agrees but adds that getting the opinion of a doctor or physical therapist is a good idea as well — a notion that Sparks also endorses.
“Any injury should be evaluated by a trained medical professional, as some injuries that may seem minor may actually require therapies beyond common treatments like ice, compression and elevation,” she says. “Not every bump or scrape needs emergency attention like a fracture or dislocated joint, but for less urgent injuries with pain lasting more than 24-48 hours evaluation by a medical provider is recommended to see if it is safe to continue with exercise activities.”
After getting a professional diagnosis, one way to work around most injuries is to focus on other parts of the body or other types of training, remaining active without aggravating the injury.
“Some activity is always better than none, so the key is doing what is most comfortable for you during the injury,” says L.J. Mattraw, a wellness manager at Franciscan Health Fitness Centers. “If it’s an upper-body injury, for example, try to focus more on lower-body and cardiovascular training. If it’s a lower-body injury, try to focus primarily on upper-body and flexibility training. The bottom line is that everyone has to deal with setbacks at one point or another, and it’s important to be patient throughout the process so the injury doesn’t persist and get worse.”
Bryant, too, says there are several common injuries that people can continue to safely work through after being diagnosed by a medical professional and given an appropriate course of treatment. Some forms of tendinitis, for example, can safely be navigated to allow for continued exercise with reduced weight, repetition, or duration of the associated muscle's use. Even with more severe injuries such as stress reactions or fractures, she says modifications can be considered. They should not apply force/stress over the injured area, but allow continued cardiovascular fitness to maintain conditioning in preparation for a return to full activities.
However, she draws an absolute line on trying to soldier through one particular type of injury.
“The No. 1 common injury that I treat that I would not advise working through would be a concussion,” she says. “Hands down, continued strenuous exercise activities or continued participation in contact activities can put one at significant risk for brain injury and a prolonged period of recovery.”
Indeed, even beyond head injuries, Bryant cautions against really trying to “fight through” almost any kind of significant pain. In most cases, an injured body will be better served by a little rest than continued exercise, especially if the patient ends up falling into poor mechanics or straining another part of the body. Plus, it’s just no fun.
“As I tell my patients/athletes, no one needs to be a martyr during exercise,” she says. “Exercise should be enjoyable."