Hi! I’m Injury- 5 Top Tips for Reducing Injury Risk and Improving Outcomes

Hi! I’m Injury.

I hope you’re not well.

I know you weren’t expecting me, but do you mind if I stop by for a few weeks, or maybe months.. oh…what the heck… while I’m asking…maybe a year?

This is the conversation I have been mulling around in my head for several weeks as I contemplated writing this blog. Injuries never ask if it’s OK if they pop in. Sometimes they are unexpected and shocking, but other times we create them ourselves with poor training, no exercise or risk taking behaviors.  Injuries can last days, weeks, months, or, if not taken care of properly…years. Yes, injuries can lurk in the background as small annoyances for years, IF you don’t take care of yourself.

Here’s my top 5 tips for reducing your risk of injury and how to take care of yourself once injured.

Don’t ignore ongoing low level pain or dysfunction.

Many injuries can be “foretold” if we paid attention to our ongoing pain or physical dysfunction. Pain is a sign that tissue is aggravated, and ignoring it never makes it go away. For example, many people who go on to have significant back injuries have had low level back pain and stiffness forever. They sit for work, don’t pay attention to posture, and don’t exercise. A back injury should be no surprise when they then go to shovel snow. But, somehow, we are always surprised when injury arrives. What a disconnect!  Exercise is a big part of keeping injuries away. Proper exercise “lubricates” everything. Your cells- all the cells of the body, not just musculoskeletal cells- LOVE exercise. One Caveat- proper exercise means exercise that is appropriate for YOU, at your fitness level. If you’ve had ongoing calf stiffness and pain, and decide that you want to start running, that’s not proper exercise. That’s a recipe for injury. On the other hand, starting gentle stretching and core strengthening after noticing back and hip stiffness IS proper exercise. One more reminder; pay attention to posture. Static poor posture, whether standing, or sitting, or doing other activities, sets us up for dysfunction and injury.

Balance your fitness with flexibility and strength work as well as cardio.

Even in these modern times, when everyone knows how important strength training and stretching is, there are many people who still don’t commit to either of these healthy practices. Runners are particularly problematic when it comes to understanding the role of strength and flexibility. Golfers are the same. These athletes want to run or golf, and that’s it. But, injuries can occur from any over use, even walking, jogging or golfing. Sports performance and recreational activities require balanced fitness.

On the other end of the spectrum, don’t expect stretching to cure injuries. Excessive stretching, especially in end range of motion, like in some yoga poses, will cause injury over time. Many muscular injuries can be made worse by excessive stretching, because you are yanking on aggravated tissue. Instead, consider massage, physical therapy, acupuncture, low level corrective exercises etc. as the way to heal yourself.

Invest in ongoing soft tissue work of some kind.

Massage is not a luxury. It is a necessity. While no one fully understands how knots and trigger points are created, we do know that knots cause pain, dysfunction and injuries. Knots and trigger points can press on nerves causing pain, but more importantly, knots prevent normal function of the muscle. Get rid of those knots before they become the cause of your injury.

There are many kinds of massage, and many self-massage techniques. When you experience low level pain in a muscle, massaging it yourself is very useful. Self-massage is also called self-myofascial release, and there are all kinds of tools to assist with massage. Balls, rollers, sticks, Theracanes can be used to massage deeply or gently, based on your pain level.

Take an active role in your healing and rehab.

It’s amazing (and sad) how many people go to physical therapy, get better, then stop doing the exercises the PT gave them. They then complain that PT didn’t work. They have a “do it to me” mindset, rather than “I will take control” mindset. You must take a more active role in staying injury free!  An active role in your healing means you seek out proper medical advice for an injury, follow that proper advice to a tee, and then progress slowly from injury to healing.  Currently, for acute but non-emergency injuries like muscle tears, or joint sprains, it is recommended that ice be applied for the first 24 hours, then heat afterward.  Heating, massage and proper stretching is a great recipe for healing.  Icing chronic or old injuries is not recommended because it shuts down blood flow, an integral part of healing. There is also some evidence that chronic use of anti-inflammatories like Advil also shut down the natural healing inflammatory process, so consider that when taking medicine for pain.

One question I often get is “should I rest or be active?” after an injury. It depends. Every injury is different. From my own experience with a severe ankle sprain, I found that the more I walked within reason, the better my ankle felt. Don’t convince yourself that rest is always 100% the cure. It can, in some cases, cause muscle atrophy and stiffness, thus make things worse. We often see this with back injuries. The advice to go to bed and rest is not always the best advice for back pain. Conversely, be smart about a return to exercise after an injury ( see below!). Ask your Physical Therapist for advice on this, as I find they are the best resource for healing an injury.

Think clearly before engaging in behaviors that may put you at risk for injury.

I recently saw a client who had foot surgery 2 months ago. He was doing well, but then decided to “try out” the ankle by running a 5K. Big mistake. That was too risky a behavior at that time, as he had not properly progressed to this stage yet. Maybe if he had ran ½ mile, then waited to see results, he would’ve continued to progress. Unfortunately, now he is back at the orthopedist with a significant re-injury.  Same goes with any exercise regimen.  Consider the risk. Someone at the gym challenges you to a deadlifting contest?…hmmm. I’d reconsider that.  You are asked to do a Tough Mudder with friends? Hmmmm… could be risky, so you better train for it!

On a more mundane level, stay aware and slow down when carrying or lifting heavy objects, or multitasking without attention. One reason I hurt my ankle was that I was rushing to see a client, and did not notice that the rug had buckled up on the stair landing. I stepped on the rug – which I thought was the landing- and sprained my ankle.  I wish now I had slowed down and paid more attention to my footing.

Injuries can be an eye-opening exercise in patience and self-care that can result, eventually, in learning and educating yourself how to stay injury free in the future. I have found there are always ways to help yourself , but you must be persistent and think outside of the box. Lastly, try not to allow the pity party to take over you. It solves nothing, and may lead you to actually make things worse, emotionally and physically.