Being injured sucks – I’ve been there.
You put in the time and effort to get better and stronger at whatever skills you’ve been working on, and something went wrong. Maybe your foot slipped and you got an acute injury, or maybe your shoulder just started hurting, seemingly out of nowhere.
Regardless of the cause, it can be tough to figure out precisely what’s wrong and how to get your body back in action, which is exactly where this article will help you out.
- We’ll start by arming you with a better understanding of your injury and how it came about.
- Then we’ll talk about what you should and shouldn’t avoid with these different types of injuries.
- And finally, we’ll give you some recommendations for resources that will help you on your road to recovery.
I’ve worked with countless patients over my 18 years of experience as a Physical Therapist, and we’ve helped thousands of clients at GMB, at every level of practice, with addressing injuries and limitations so they can get back to living and enjoying their favorite activities.
We’ve helped clients deal with everything from twisted ankles to chronic neuromuscular diseases, and though we don’t give medical advice, we have a lot of experience helping people figure out how to get beyond limitations. Trust us, we’ve seen all the injuries discussed in this article (and more), so we know you can get back to the activities you love.
It’s just a matter of knowing what you’re dealing with, and taking the right steps to get you to where you want to go.
If you’re injured now, or have been in the past, this article will give the knowledge you need to get back to doing what’s important to you as soon as possible.
Understand Your Injury – The 4 Most Common Causes of Training Related Injuries
It’s pretty common that you’ll know exactly what caused your injury, but sometimes that won’t be the case. Either way, the first step to overcoming your injury is to become more familiar with what’s really going on with your body.
But before we get into the four most common causes of injuries, it’s important to know when you should seek immediate medical attention from a professional (besides the obvious broken bone or the like). Go see your doctor immediately if you experience any of the following:
- Numbness or tingling in an area that hasn’t subsided within a few days of first noticing it.
- Significant weakness (not related to pain), such as consistently dropping cups of coffee, or a foot dragging when you walk.
- Pain that consistently wakes you up at night.
- Sharp, “shooting” pain that goes down your arms or legs.
- Any pain from trauma (sprained ankle, wrist, fall onto shoulder, etc.) that doesn’t improve significantly within a week or so, and with pain greater than a 5 on a scale of 1 – 10 (with 10 being most painful).
- Fever, weight loss, or any other vital changes happening for no apparent reason.
Basically, this is all bad stuff. Don’t wait to get things checked out by your physician if you experience any of these symptoms. These could be signs of significant issues and it’s best to go sooner rather than later.
Now let’s take a look at the most likely causes of your injury*.
* The identification of these four injury types comes from Erl Pettman.
1. Was Your Injury Caused By Trauma?
Trauma is a no-brainer cause of many injuries, and it’d be pretty hard not to know when this happens, as it is characterized by its quick and obvious nature.
The characteristics of a traumatic injury are:
- It happens quickly
- You’ll usually know relatively quickly how bad the damage is
- The level of injury will correspond with the force of the trauma (in other words, if the damage is worse than it seems like it should be, it’s probably another type of injury)
Examples of this happen all the time in daily and recreational activities. Falls and collisions, tripping and twisting your ankle, and/or your kids jumping on you while you’re on the couch (not that that’s happened to me…) – these are all really common sources of injury.
With trauma, the force must be clearly proportional to the injury, and the extent of the damage is known almost immediately.
The amount of swelling, bruising, and pain will indicate how bad off you are, and you’ll usually know right away if you need to go get your injury checked out by your doctor. Of course, if you experience any of the symptoms above within a few days, go see your doctor anyway.
To be clear, “I bent over to pick up a sock, and my back went out” is not trauma!
Yes, there seemed to be a specific incident that caused your back pain, but if you bend over to pick up stuff all the time, why did you injure yourself this particular time? A good rule of thumb is if it seems your pain is out of sync with what just happened, it is most likely due to a combination of the complex factors listed below.
2. Was It An Overuse Injury?
This type of injury is common among “weekend warriors” who (for example) might go all out at a pick-up basketball game on Saturday after not having moved that much in a long time.
The characteristics of overuse injuries are:
- Fast breakdown in muscle tissue
- Symptoms occur quickly
- Caused by a change in your environment
Overuse problems are different than a repetitive stress injury (which we’ll talk about next). The difference is that overuse is distinguished by a relatively fast breakdown in tissue, because of the introduction of a stress that the structure is not equipped to tolerate.
The cause is a distinct change in your “environment,” whether that is a new sport or a new pair of shoes.
The change can be easily identified and the symptoms appear almost immediately – usually within a few days, and sometimes as soon as a few hours.
A common example is helping someone move out of their house. Unless you’ve been regularly lifting (and even if you have been!), I bet you’ll be feeling some tweaks and strains later in the day or the next morning.
Another typical case is adding an extra day of training when your body is just not up for the extra stress.
Perhaps you are getting just enough rest and recuperation on your regular off days from training, and you are not able to tolerate the extra work. If you ignore these symptoms of the “new ache” in your shoulders, or the shin splints that you haven’t had since you ran track in high school, you may be setting yourself up for long term problems.
3. Did Your Injury Come From Repetitive Stress?
This type of injury is often a head scratcher, where you don’t necessarily know the exact cause of the issue. Unlike a traumatic or overuse injury, there wasn’t a specific event that precipitated this injury.
The characteristics of repetitive stress injuries are:
- Slowly develops over extended period of time
- Buildup of irritation to a tissue
- Pain may be gradual
Repetitive stress injuries are formed by a slow buildup of irritation to a tissue, occurring over the course of weeks, months, and perhaps even years, before symptoms are noticed.
An example is the carpenter who works for years and years without difficulty, yet now notices a lingering pain in his wrist that is worsening. When questioned, he may recall that there was a gradual deterioration in his performance.
Another example from my practice is when I treated a farrier (person who shoes horses) once who had been working for years without trouble but had intense elbow pain for some time before he came in for treatment. But that slow deterioration can be difficult to notice until the pain becomes too much to ignore.
One example from physical training may be that in your sessions you initially feel an ache in your shoulder which comes and goes. But some months later, you notice that pain lingers longer than it has before, is a bit more intense, and perhaps instead of only happening when you exercise, it now appears when you are putting your groceries on a high shelf.
What causes this? Perhaps an illness, or even just the passage of time, which brought strength levels down for a bit while you continued on without any decrease in the volume of your activities.
Unless you’re experiencing any red flag symptoms that require a medical professional’s attention, the strategies we’ll share further in this article will be good for this type of injury.
4. Was It Caused By Exhausted Adaptive Potential?
This cause is the most difficult to see, and is likely best assessed by a professional health care provider. It’s a complex issue that can take a keen eye and experience. But it is helpful to know the basic things to look out for.
The characteristics of an exhausted adaptive potential injury are:
- Most complex cause of damage
- Can be caused by improper healing of a prior trauma, or by the adaptations your body made to compensate for a prior trauma
- The cause is often not the same as the new site of pain
Our bodies’ adaptive potential is defined as the ability to tolerate the various stresses in our daily activities. This is distinct from overuse or repetitive stress, in that the underlying problem is generally not at the area of our pain.
An injury of this kind happens when we’ve had a past trauma that appeared to heal, but in fact, compensated by affecting structures other than the compromised body part.
The true cause (the “culprit”) is often far removed from the site of pain (the “victim”), and the cause of these compensations is what needs to be addressed, rather than just treating the symptoms at the site of pain.
For example, you may have slipped and fallen on some icy ground last winter, and had some pain in your shoulder that got better after a couple of weeks.
This incident may have subtly changed your posture and how you hold your neck. Even though you initially had no pain in your neck, you soon notice a constant neck pain which seems to have appeared “out of nowhere” (this is where the “I bent down to pick up a pen and now I can’t move my neck!” comes in to play).
The simplest explanation is an overuse of those extensor muscles, but the case can be significantly more complicated. Let me elaborate.
- A previous neck strain irritates a nerve root.
- This irritated nerve root is then unable to provide a normal signal to your wrist extensor musculature.
- These weakened electrical impulses may then cause a dysfunctional muscle contraction.
- The weakened signal results in a weaker muscle.
- This decreased force of contraction makes the muscles less capable and the tissue cannot withstand the external forces acting upon it.
Weak spots in your physical make-up (such as tight shoulders, trouble bending forward, neck stiffness with rotation to one direction) can create problems elsewhere in your body, and make you more vulnerable to injuries during your training.
Mike Fitch from Global Bodyweight Training has talked about his experience with this:
“In my experience, injury is an opportunity to look at a dysfunctional area in your body that you’ve either been avoiding or didn’t know existed. It’s common to hear someone talk about doing something mundane like picking up a loaf of bread and ‘throwing out their back.’ While in reality, the weakness or imbalance had already been there for quite some time, the bread just happened to be the last straw.”
(For more on Mike’s experience with a major injury, listen to Ryan’s interview with him on the topic).
Identifying and working on your problem areas can help prevent bigger problems in the future.
So You’ve Got an Injury – Now What?
In all likelihood, your injury falls under one of the four categories described. If not, you might be dealing with something more complicated (or more serious), and you should go see your doctor for more help.
Assuming you’ve got one of the injuries we’ve talked about above, what should you do? Stop everything and accept your injured fate?
Well, that depends.
When You Should Take a Break vs. When You Should Keep Moving
Some injuries will heal better with rest, others will heal better with movement.
- Traumatic Injury – With trauma, it really depends on the severity of the injury. If it’s bad enough that you have to go see your doctor, you’ll probably need some amount of rest period, but just follow your doctor’s recommendations. If it’s less severe, you’ll likely want to take at least a few days or even a week or two to rest up. This rest period is a good time to get in some gentle movement to keep the blood flowing.
- Overuse Injury – Because overuse injuries are caused by “going hard” when you’re not used to doing so, rest is imperative. But after a few days of rest, once the affected area is feeling mostly better, that’s the time to start making regular, consistent movement a priority. This will protect you from future overuse injuries.
- Repetitive Stress Injury – This type of injury happens over a long period of time, so unless there’s a specific activity that’s aggravating the area, stopping your training is probably not the answer. Instead, adding in some movements and stretches that will help you strengthen and mobilize your area of pain will yield good benefit.
- Exhausted Adaptive Potential Injury – As I mentioned above, this type of injury can be quite complex and addressing it on your own might not be the best idea, especially before getting your issue checked out. Stop your regular training for now, see a doctor, and follow their recommendations.
As you can see, for most injury types, you’ll do well to keep moving, rather than resting completely.
“But Isn’t Rest the Key to Recovery?!” Here’s My Injury Story…
I’ll use myself as an example.
A while back, I started a barbell squat specialization program, and seemed to develop a slight tendinitis of my sartorius, a muscle that attaches to the front of the pelvis. When I first noticed it, I only felt pain with touch. I noticed no pain in walking and only minimal pain in squatting (and this pain quickly subsided).
It was an interesting tendinitis that I’d never had before, and I believe it developed from my attempts at a change in squat technique, along with a relatively high frequency and steadily increasing poundage.
I then identified the technique issue (which was sitting back on my heels too much), which took the strain off the tendon.
This was actually a case where the injury wouldn’t benefit from a rest period. With the fix in form errors and the benefit of consistent exercise to improve blood flow to the area, I determined it was best to continue with my planned fitness program.
The improved technique performance takes care of the cause of the issue, but I still had the symptoms to manage.
Along with the icing and light exercise and stretching to the area, I also used a technique called “transverse friction mobilization.” This technique can be done as a self massage as long as the area is relatively accessible.
- Massage the painful area until the pain numbs or lessens considerably, which is around 5 to 10 minutes.
- Then it’s best to do light active movements (like stretching or locomotion, as I’ll describe next), then ice the area directly following your massage treatment.
How to Get Moving Again After Your Injury
Now that you’ve got a good understanding of where your injury is coming from, it’s time to start addressing your problem head-on.
Make sure to first read the previous section about whether or not you should see your physician or physical therapist before trying to fix things on your own. If your injury falls under the “you can probably manage it on your own” category, this section will be helpful in getting back to normal.
And if you’ve been sidelined by an injury but you’re ready to get back to it, these resources are a good place to start.
We’ll start with a more general approach that will help you address gaps in your strength, flexibility, and motor control, then we’ll give you some specific recommendations for common problem areas.
Locomotive Solutions for Your Injury
There are a lot of different approaches to work through an injury – stretching, isometrics, foam rolling, self-massage – these are all great options.
Our favorite approach, though, is to use locomotive patterns to work on strength, flexibility, and motor control all at once, so that you can fill in the gaps that led to your injury in the first place.
We start with specific movements but the ultimate goal is to get you feeling better so that you can move however you want and need to move. Here’s a good example of one client who’s used the locomotive patterns we teach to work through his injuries:
Elements is a great option if you want to protect yourself from future injury, or if you’ve got nagging aches and pains to work through. If you have a specific injury, the tutorials in the next section will help you address your needs more specifically.
Specific Solutions for Common Problem Areas
We’ve written articles on all the major body areas that are most commonly affected by training related injuries.
If you’re dealing with an injury or problem area, start by reading the appropriate article(s) and implementing the strategies we recommend within:
- Neck – Exercises for Proper Neck Function
- Shoulders – Causes and Solutions for Shoulder Pain
- Elbows – Fix Your Elbow Pain
- Wrists – Get Stronger, More Flexible Wrists
- Spine – How the Spine Works and How to Make it Stronger
- Hips – Exercises for Hip Power and Mobility
- Knees – Keep Your Knees Healthy for Pain-Free Movement
- Feet – Exercises for Foot, Ankle, and Calf Health
In each of our body maintenance articles, you’ll see that we address the problem at hand through combined work on strength, mobility, and motor control. Our full Body Maintenance Guide will give you all the information and exercise recommendations you need on hand to work through your injury.
Work Through Your Injuries and Take Care of Your Body
Our Body Maintenance Guide will help you work through what’s ailing you, and get you back to the activities you love as soon as possible.