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To move or not to move: Exercising with pain

To move or not to move? That is the question! When your body hurts, the last thing you want to do is hit the treadmill, but research indicates that exercise can actually reduce pain and speed injury recovery. So when should you push through the pain, and when should you throw in the towel? Use these tips for making the determination.

woman exercising with pain

Differentiating between pain

Not all pain is the same. There’s a big difference between the pain experienced from rolling an ankle and pain experienced due to chronic arthritis. One type of pain is sudden, acute and has not been diagnosed, while the other is pain that you learn to manage from day-to-day.

As a general rule, any time you experience sudden, acute pain — especially pain that results in an altered gait or range of motion — you should take a break from exercise to rest, recuperate and have your injury looked at by a health care professional. The last thing you want to do is continue exercising on a rolled ankle that is actually fractured or continue doing pushups when you’ve torn your rotator cuff. Even if you don’t think your injury is that serious, take at least a day or two to rest and ice the site to reduce swelling and inflammation before trying to exercise again.

While there are lots of different types of injuries, here are some guidelines from the University of Rochester Medical Center for when you should take a break and see a doctor for bone, joint or muscle injuries:

  • Persistent pain that doesn’t go away
  • Stiffness or looseness at a joint that affects range of motion
  • Decreases in strength or movement that affect daily activities
  • Pain accompanied by swelling or redness
  • Deformity at the site of injury

Exercising with chronic pain

If you are one of the millions of adults who suffer from chronic pain, your best bet is to continue exercising. According to Spine-Health, individuals with chronic lower back pain who engage in low-impact cardio, strength training and stretching actually experience more pain relief, fewer flare-ups and less stiffness than those who forego exercise. This is because exercise increases blood flow to the muscles and joints, distributing nutrients into the injured tissue and improving muscle and joint health.

The same theory applies to those with arthritis or other chronic pain. There’s just one thing to keep in mind: Your level of pain will dictate the type of exercise you can do. Talk to your doctor about what she recommends and work with a professional who can help you identify exercises that won’t exacerbate your injuries. Generally speaking, lower impact exercises like walking, swimming, cycling, Tai Chi and yoga are going to be easier to manage than high-impact alternatives.

That said, approach exercise with a progressive frame of mind: As your pain subsides, increase your exercise intensity — if you experience a flare-up, back off and do what you can. There’s certainly no need to take advanced kick boxing if you’re hurting! Hop in the pool for some water walking or spend 20 minutes on the recumbent bike instead.

Active rest for acute pain

Even if you suffer an acute injury, like a torn ACL or broken ankle, after your initial treatment you’ll actually heal faster if you engage in active rest. The idea is this: If you break a bone and have to spend extended time away from exercise, the muscles, ligaments and tendons surrounding the injury site will start to weaken. Once you’re ready to return to exercise, you’ll find it more difficult to recover and may actually set yourself up for other injuries.

Individuals who perform “active rest,” consisting of low-impact cardio along with doctor-prescribed strengthening and stretching exercises, will maintain range of motion, strength and tissue health, all of which will make recovery easier. That said, this is not something you should do alone! It’s important that you work with your doctor, physical therapist or athletic trainer to make sure that you’re helping, and not hurting, your recovery.

More on pain relief

Signs it’s time to see your doctor for pain
Foods that help reduce inflammation
OTC 101: Understanding over-the-counter pain medications

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