Recovering from an injury can be a long process that involves much more than regaining strength in the affected limb. As a trainer, it is common to have clients who have suffered an injury in their past. In fact, it is estimated that recreational athletes experience as many as 2 injuries/year. In our bootcamps, many of our participants have experienced injuries in their past ranging from simple ankle sprains to shoulder impingement to major knee surgery. Many people are surprised to discover that injuries can actually reset our entire body mechanics, and often disrupt wiring mechanisms between our brain and muscles. It is crucial we take appropriate action when faced with an injury in order to avoid what trainers and physical therapist refer to as “the cumulative injury cycle”. The earlier and more aggressive you respond, the quicker you will be back on your feet post-injury.
When an injury occurs, our body responds with an immediate immune response. White blood cell proliferation leads to inflammation at the injured area. General guidelines recommend RICE (rest, ice, compress, elevate) immediately after an injury. Something as simple as a sprained ankle demands immediate attention to keep swelling down; stop the activity, ice the area with a cold pack or ice wrapped in a towel and finally elevate and apply compression.
It is also important you differentiate between when an injury needs “rest” or immediate attention. In the case of a sprain, if the area is still painful one week later or swelling lasts for more than a two weeks, you need to visit your doctor. On the other hand, if you hear a “popping” noise at the time of the injury, experience severe pain, notice a change in color, or feel numbness or tingling, you should see a doctor immediately.
As you injury begins to heal, you may be tempted to jump right back to your previous activity level. The problem is, the muscle may spasm if challenged too soon leading to further inflammation and formation of adhesions around the injured area. The adhesions may impede movement in the injured area forcing other muscles to compensate. Over time new neuromuscular connections develop that can permanently alter posture and alignment. These muscle imbalances increase risk of future injuries. This process is known as the cumulative injury cycle.
So what is the proper recovery time after an injury? Certainly that will depend on the extend of your injury but a good rule of thumb for minor injuries (sprains, muscle impingements, ligament inflammation) , is to completely rest the area for one to two weeks. If the swelling has gone away and you remain pain free after a light workout, you can gradually increase your intensity and duration to pre-injury levels. If pain or inflammation returns following activity, repeat the RICE process. If pain still continuos, a trip to the doctor may be necessary. More serious injuries will require immediate attention by a doctor, a significant period of inactivity in the injured limb and a post-rehab program developed by a licensed physical therapist. Physical therapist undergo extensive training in muscle and ligament mechanics, muscle imbalances and neuromuscular connections. They will design a program specific to your injury and needs. Once a physical therapist clears you for exercise, they will release you to a personal trainer or let you know of any activity restrictions.
Injuries that don’t heal properly or are challenged to soon, can lead to permanent muscle imbalances and limited range of motion. About 20 years ago I personally suffered from a hairline fracture in my wrist that never healed properly. Like many of you, I still struggle with certain weight bearing exercises and often invent my own modifications. As frustrating as being sidelined may be, your best bet is to listen to the experts and take a breather when experiencing joint or ligament pain. Many physical therapist and personal trainers can offer supplemental exercises that will still keep you active but won’t stress your injured limb. In the long run, the extra care will allow you to play harder in the future.