Don't 'play through pain'

Weekend athletes, beware: overuse injuries can become more serious if you don't take care of them.
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Weekend athletes, beware: overuse injuries can become more serious if you don’t take care of them.

Whether it’s throwing a baseball or swinging a golf club, any repeated athletic movement can lead to a repetitive-stress, or overuse, injury. These are different from acute injuries, such as severe sprains, strains or fractures,which result from a single fall or collision. overuse injuries develop when a series of small injuries aren’t given time to rest and heal. That can lead to minor stress fractures, minimal muscle tears, chronic irritation to tendons (tendonitis) or progressive bone deformities.

Just about any sport can cause overuse injuries, says Christopher J. Spagnuola, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Monmouth Medical Center. “In summer, injuries come from overhead movements such as baseball throwing and tennis serving, and runners develop shin splints and stress fractures,” he says. “In winter, skiers and basketball players show up with knee tendonitis. Skaters get groin strains.”

Aging used to be a key risk factor for overuse injuries—though “Little League elbow” has long plagued young pitchers who throw too many pitches without proper rest and recovery. But nowadays, growing numbers of young people concentrate on one sport and play it year-round. Adult “weekend warriors,” who compress all their activity into their two off-days, are also prone to stress injuries.

“If I typically play golf once a month, then suddenly play two rounds a day over two days, my elbow may not be up to the task,” says Brian Torpey, M.D., another Monmouth Medical Center orthopedic surgeon.

“The body part is caught off guard—it’s asked to do things without time to recover,” says Dr. Torpey, who adds that errors in training or technique can be the culprit—going too fast, exercising too long or simply doing too much of one type of activity.

Smart habits can reduce your risk. (See “7 Ways to Prevent ‘Overuse’ Injuries,” beow.) But if you suspect you have an overuse injury, stop what you’re doing. “Muscles will naturally be sore after you work out, but if the pain interferes with or alters your usual activity, that’s not normal,” Dr. Spagnuola says.

And that old advice about playing through pain? Forget it. “If you exercise through the pain, that can lead to more serious injuries,” Dr. Spagnuola says. You can treat most overuse injuries yourself, with the time-tested methods known by the acronym RICE: rest, ice, compression and elevation. Anti-inflammatory pain relievers, such as ibuprophen (Motrin, Advil), acetaminophen (Tylenol) or aspirin, can also help. “But if you need these pain relievers for more than a few days, or if your condition doesn’t improve within a couple of weeks—or gets worse— see your doctor,” Dr. Spagnuola says. “You may need imaging studies to see if there is more serious damage.”

In those cases, doctors can offer prescription anti-inflammatory medicines, try cortisone injections to reduce the inflammation, fit you for orthopedic braces and, when the pain and swelling are reduced, prescribe physical therapy to strengthen the injured area before you return to action. “Fortunately,” says Dr. Torpey, “most overuse injuries respond well to conservative care and management, so you can get back on track within a week or two."

7 ways to prevent ‘overuse’ injuries




7 ways to prevent ‘overuse’ injuries

  • Check with your doctor. If you have medical concerns you believe may increase your injury risk, see your physician.
  • Know your sport. Familiarity with proper techniques is key. Even if you’ve been playing a particular sport for years, you may benefit from a lesson from a pro now and then to correct flaws before they become injurious.
  • Protect your equipment. Keeping your gear in good condition (especially footwear) increases the chances that you’ll stay in good shape too.
  • Pace yourself. Always warm up until you develop a light sweat before you play. And stretch all your muscle groups to cool down afterward.
  • Be consistent. If you’re a “weekend warrior,” just 30 minutes of walking and stretching every day can keep your body in better condition to tackle more strenuous Saturday-and-Sunday activities. And in the off-season, practice your sport now and then—swing a golf club in your basement, for example—to keep your body tuned.
  • Don’t push yourself too hard. Whatever your sport or exercise, “ramp up slowly, by changing the intensity or duration of your workout by no more than 10 percent every week,” says Brian Torpey, M.D., an orthopedic surgeon at Monmouth Medical Center. “For example, if you’re a runner, don’t suddenly jump from a 5K to a mini-marathon.
  • Cross-train. Mix up your exercises to include two or more different types of activity. “Spend some time on a stationary bike or elliptical machine, swim, do yoga— anything that’s not just the same activity,” says orthopedic surgeon Christopher J. Spagnuola, M.D. “That way you rest your most active muscle groups while training the others.” This also helps you build all-around aerobic capacity, muscle strength, core stability and balance, all of which help prevent overuse injuries.
To find out more about the treatment of exercise and sports injuries and other orthopedic issues at Monmouth Medical Center, please call 888-SBHS-123 (888-724-7123).
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