Exercise injuries happen to the best of us. Even if you train hard and smart, warm up properly, work on your flexibility and restoration/recovery, eat right, and get plenty of sleep, sometimes it’s just YOUR turn. Being injured is no fun at all but, and assuming your injury is not super-serious, there are several things you can do that will speed your recovery so you can get back into exercise as soon as possible.
PRICE – your first steps to speedy injury recovery
PRICE stands for protection, Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation and is an easy way to remember what immediate action you should take if you are unlucky enough to suffer an injury.
P – protect yourself from further injury. This means stopping your workout or taking yourself off the field of play. Do not attempt to “run off” or work through an injury as you may make it worse and end up making the recovery process even longer. If you have a lower limb injury, find a way to get your weight off your injured side – crutches may be useful. If it’s an upper body injury, quit using your arm and maybe put it in a sling.
R – rest is the most important part of injury recovery. You need to give the damaged structures chance to recover. This may take days or weeks, but you need to resist the temptation of going back to training too soon and reinjuring the same body part again. Also, try not to test your injury to see how your recovery is progressing. If your shoulder hurts on Monday morning, it’ll probably still hurt Monday evening! Testing it will simply delay recovery. Rest hard to ensure your injury repairs as quickly as possible.
I – ice helps reduce pain and inflammation. Because your sensory nerves are only really able to carry a limited amount of information from your limbs to your brain, placing ice on an injury means your nerves will carry more of the cold sensation and less of the pain sensation. This is called pain-gate theory. Ice also reduces blood flow and swelling which may facilitate faster healing. Ice the injury site for 20-minutes a few times a day for the first couple of days after your injury occurred. Always put a medium such as a dishcloth between your skin and the ice to avoid painful ice burns and remember to put the ice on your limb and not your limb on the ice to avoid restricting circulation.
C – compression. Strapping an injury with compression bandage means it will be supported and rest can be more complete. Do not use a support as a means to allowing you to work out as you will only delay recovery. Strapping an injury can also help manage swelling and acts as a “stay away” sign for others who might inadvertently grab you by your sprained wrist and shake your hand!
E – elevating your injured limb above heart-height will help minimize swelling, enforces rest and also helps the waste products of injury repair drain away from the site of the injury. This may help reduce bruising. For leg injuries, this means sitting or lying with your feet up.
Other things you can do to speed up the recovery process
Heat – While ice was appropriate in the early stages of injury, heat is equally beneficial in the latter stages. Heat helps increase circulation which ensures the injured area get lots or freshly-oxygenated blood and any waste products from the healing process are flushed away. For maximum benefit, alternate heat and cold to really ramp up circulation. Finish with cold if you are still experiencing swelling or heat if you have muscle soreness or stiffness.
Gentle stretching – As your injury heals, gentle stretching can help minimize scar tissue formation and ensure new muscle fibers are laid in the right direction. Staying immobile or passively resting can result in more not less scar tissue as muscle fibers will end up bunched rather than aligned with other fibers. Scar tissue does not contract or stretch as readily as it should and can be easily reinjured. Mild, pain-free stretching will prevent this.
Gentle exercise – When your injury well on the way to healing, you should start some gentle, non-weight bearing exercise. Movement can also help with the organization of new muscle fibers. Exercise should be completely non-challenging and be more about movement than overload. This may mean non-weight bearing exercises for lower limb injuries or simply moving your arms or shoulders. Use ice to calm any subsequent inflammation.
General exercise – One of the hardest things about being injured is the lack of activity. This can play heavily on your mental state. Rather than wallow in self-pity, look for activities you can do that will not affect your injury. For example, if you have a lower leg injury, get to the gym and work on your bench press. This gives you focus, provides an outlet, help you manage your stress, and can help ensure you get your endorphin fix. These factors combine to promote a healthy, positive state of mind which is essential for speedy injury healing.
Massage – Massage can help with pain management, increasing circulation, and leave you feeling happy and relaxed – important factors for healing. Initially, massage should be very superficial and general – a hard, deep massage may actually undo some of the healing process. Save the deeper, more therapeutic massages for when you are healed.
Returning to exercise
Even if your injury was relatively mild, you should return to training slowly and gradually build back up to your prior levels of exercise. Consider halving both exercise volume and intensity for your first few workouts and only increasing the demands of your workouts gradually over a few weeks or even months. This slow build up is necessary to avoid a repeat injury. You may still need to use heat/ice/massage to manage any discomfort and the use of supportive strapping may be beneficial. If you feel your injury starting to return, don’t ignore it and hope it goes away. Go back a few steps and build up more slowly.
If your injury was the result of muscle tightness, muscle weakness, or muscle imbalance, learn by your mistake and get it fixed! Make sure you build rehab/prehab exercises into your workout schedule to minimize your risk of suffering the same injury again. Make rehab/prehab a priority in an attempt to “injury proof” your body. Self-massage with a foam roller, core exercises, rotator cuff exercises, posture training, and flexibility training all fall under the heading of rehab/prehab.
Being injured is no one’s idea of a good time but rather than just wait it out and end up being injured longer than necessary, you should take steps to facilitate recovery. If your injury was severe enough to warrant medical attention, don’t ignore your doctor’s or therapist’s advice – they are the experts after all. Explain to them what you intend to do and check that it is conducive with their suggested treatment regime. Recovery from injury is NEVER seems fast enough even when you do everything right. That being said, by taking an active role in your recovery, the whole process can feel much shorter.