What to Do When Exercise Starts to Hurt

Family walking on cliffside path

The weather has been great lately and I’ve really enjoyed the opportunities to get outside get active with my family. But all that ball kicking and frisbee throwing has reminded me that I’m not quite as young as I used to be. While staying active is a great way to stay healthy well into old age, going overboard too quickly can lead to muscle soreness, joint pain and even injury. So what should you do if you find yourself lying on the couch cursing yesterday’s burst of exercise enthusiasm? Here are a few tips to help you recuperate.

Figure Out If You Need Help

When you wind up with an ache or pain after a game with friends or a workout session on your own, try to get a sense of how bad you think it is. If you see a lot of a swelling, are in moderate to severe pain, or can’t put any weight on the joint or limb that’s affected, you should go see a medical professional. The same goes for pain or soreness that just won’t go away. If a specific pain has been bothering you for more than a week or two, make an appointment to get it checked out. It’s better to find out that nothing’s wrong than to be walking around on a fracture or ligament tear.

Treating serious complaints early helps them heal faster and gets you back in good health earlier. Remember, it’s all a question of degree. A little soreness on a new exercise regimen is to be expected. Disabling pain is not.

Take a Break

While it might seem obvious, taking a break when something really hurts is the most important thing you can do to avoid further pain and damage. This is often a challenge for my patients who have finally found the motivation to get active, only to find that an injury has sidelined them soon after starting. But when it comes to muscle or joint pain, protecting the area so it can heal is key. If you hammer through the pain day in and day out, you’re likely to end up with a more serious injury that will put you out of the game for longer than if you’d just taken a few days off.

Be Proactive

While resting is an important part of recovery, that doesn’t mean you can’t act to help the healing process along. Staying well hydrated, eating well, and working to decrease inflammation are big parts of helping a muscle or joint to recover. The best way to do this is to follow the RICE protocol.

  • Rest: As I mentioned earlier, rest the body part that hurts. That also means protecting a twisted ankle from getting twisted again or a sore shoulder from getting bumped.
  • Ice: Cold compresses or just bags of ice will help to reduce the inflammation around an injury and will also act to numb the pain. Aim to use the cold compress for about 15 minutes every one to two hours. Always wrap the ice in a cloth. Putting it directly on your skin can cause damage, especially if you do so for too long.
  • Compression: This is especially important for swollen joints. Wrapping with something compressive like an elastic bandage helps reduce swelling and also provides extra support for the injured area.
  • Elevation: Keeping the affected area above the level of your heart for an hour or two per day helps carry fluid away from swollen areas and reduces inflammation.

While it doesn’t fit into the RICE acronym, heat packs can also work well for some people later in the healing process. I find using both cooling and heating  in tandem one to two weeks after the injury can help first to reduce inflammation through cold compresses and then draw in healing cells to fix the area through warm compresses.

Take the Right Medication

You’ll find all sorts of remedies for muscle aches and pains when you peruse the aisles of the drug store, but some work better than others.

  • Ibuprofen and naproxen are both anti-inflammatory drugs called NSAIDs that block the inflammation process. They can be helpful when the area is red, warm or swollen. Remember, it’s important to take them with food since they can cause stomach troubles.
  • Acetaminophen is a pain reliever that acts to block pain rather than tackle inflammation. It’s okay to take it with other pain relievers, but don’t take more than 3000mg in a day.
  • Muscle gels and creams often contain medications that can help to reduce inflammation or numb the skin. Look for ingredients like capsaicin, methyl salicylate, or menthol.

Don’t Stop for Good

Rest is essential, but protecting or not moving a body part for too long can also be harmful. If you don’t have a serious injury, ease back into things after a week or two. Start slowly and back off if you still have pain. Slowly getting the area moving again will help to maintain flexibility while slowly restoring the strength needed to ward off future injuries. If you find you’re in pain every time you try to start moving again or something just feels wrong, it’s time to see a doctor.