How to Heal Like an Athlete

Athlete with injured knee

Even well-trained athletes get injured. In the second piece of a three-part series, Nathan Skelley, MD, a board-certified orthopaedic surgeon specializing in sports medicine at the Missouri Orthopaedic Institute, shares advice on how you can help your own recovery when the unexpected happens.

What to do when injury occurs

Nathan Skelley, MD
Nathan Skelley, MD

Pain during or after exercise is not normal (see Skelley's previous blog on “How to Train Like an Athlete”). If you’re experiencing pain, Skelley recommends using the R.I.C.E. protocol.

Rest: “The most important thing is to stop doing the activity that's aggravating the injury or joint,” Skelley said. "Take it easy for a few days"

Ice: Regardless of the severity of the injury, icing the affected area can bring down swelling and ease pain.

Compress: Wrap the injured area firmly — but not too tightly — with an ACE bandage or other wrap to reduce swelling.

Elevate: Raise the injured area above heart level. This will reduce inflammation and force you to keep the area immobile. Taking an anti-inflammatory medication, such as ibuprofen, will help manage pain and swelling.

When to seek treatment

Taking stock of when the pain started can help you decide when it’s time to see your doctor.

If you had no traumatic injury and just started experiencing pain with repetitive activity, this represents more of an overuse type injury.

This type of injury still needs attention, but it may improve on its own through home treatment with the R.I.C.E. protocol.

If it’s a minor traumatic injury — meaning you fell or felt sudden pain — and there’s no swelling and you have full motion, then just follow the R.I.C.E. protocol and use anti-inflammatories. If it’s trending toward improvement within the first 24 to 48 hours, then you can likely wait to see if you return to your baseline.

However, if range of motion is limited or pain and swelling worsen, then it’s time to see an expert.

Staying fit during recovery

While recovering from injury or surgery, you can still work muscle groups that aren’t affected.

“Depending on your injury, there are some things you can do to stay fit during recovery,” Skelley said. “Once you meet with a sports medicine specialist, we layout a treatment plan with various resources such as physical therapy to get you on a path back to your activity.”

Pool therapy and the “alter G” machine simulates a low-gravity environment to decrease the forces acting on the injured joint. Biologic injection options such as platelet-rich plasma may also aid in the healing process. Always consult your doctor for the best way to stay in shape while you recover.

‘Go slow to go fast’

It's a very slow and gradual process to get back to where you were within your sport.

"Some injuries will require several months of rehabilitation before it's safe to return to an activity. We sometimes have to reign in competitive athletes to ensure they don't create a new injury while trying to return to their sport," Skelley said.

If you’re fighting through pain and swelling, it will shut your muscles down more, starting a vicious cycle, whereas if you go slow to go fast and you hit every checkpoint with good confidence and without overdoing it, then you’re going to achieve your end goals much faster.

“If you're trying to come back after an injury, avoid rushing back into your activity and check with your doctor or physical therapist before heading to practice," he said.                                                      

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