Even well-trained athletes get injured. In the second piece of a three-part series, Seth L. Sherman, 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
Pain during or after exercise is not normal (see Sherman’s previous blog on “How to Train Like an Athlete”). If you’re experiencing pain, Sherman recommends using the R.I.C.E. protocol.
Rest: “Don't keep pushing through pain,” Sherman said. Modify your activities, and 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,” Sherman said.
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,” he said. “If it’s trending toward improvement within the first 24 to 48 hours, then I think you can safely wait it out.”
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.
“If you have a lower-extremity injury, you can continue to maintain fitness for your upper extremities and your core,” Sherman said. “Vice versa, if you have an upper-extremity injury, you can cross-train with some low-impact biking or things of that nature.”
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 is vitally important to not rush your recovery. Use crutches, braces and other prescribed aids for as long as your doctor recommends them. Rushing back into full activity, Sherman said, “can cause re-injury, or it can set your recovery time frame back further.”
“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,” Sherman said.