If you’ve spent enough time in a gym, you’ve probably heard many pain-centric mottos from trainers and fellow gym-goers: “No pain, no gain.” “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working.” “Pain is temporary, quitting is forever.”
But what if that pain you’re suffering from is more than just a nagging soreness or discomfort? What if it’s actually an injury?
“While exercising strengthens and tones the body and allows for the muscles to get stronger and firmer, it also applies an immense pressure that can easily lead to injury,” says Dr. Armin Tehrany, founder of Manhattan Orthopedic Care and honorary surgeon for the New York Police Department. "It's important to understand your body's limitations in order to prevent injury and grow stronger."
Signs and Symptoms
Start the process by discerning what constitutes “good” versus “bad” pain. Tehrany says good pain can be described as a general level of discomfort during your workout and 24 to 48 hours postworkout, so long as you are putting in the effort. However, if you are feeling pain or soreness while resting or an overwhelming level of soreness after 72 hours, to the point that you are questioning whether you should work out again, you should see your doctor.
Your experience undoubtedly will vary depending on the part of the body in question, but it could look something like this:
Knees: The knee is one of the largest joints in the body and faces near-constant activity, which means it can easily be at risk for injury without the proper precautionary methods. Some signs you need an expert to evaluate your knee, according to Tehrany, include significant localized pain on the top or bottom of the knee that is causing you discomfort and/or preventing you from walking or standing as part of your daily routine.
Shoulders: Common, repetitive motions, like overhead lifting or throwing, can lead to shoulder issues. If you feel your shoulder area “popping” during certain workouts and/or if you find that you can’t lift your arm above your head without pain, Tehrany advises seeing a doctor.
Muscles: When it comes to muscle strains in the back, arms and legs, it’s important to notice whether you are feeling overwhelming pain in any of these areas during your workout. If your muscle pain is slowing you down during a workout, you may have strained the muscle or even suffered a muscle overuse injury. Ensuring you are properly warmed up before exercising can help prevent certain strains, Tehrany says. Though it is also important to keep in mind many other factors like workout intensity, your body’s limitations and making sure you have the correct form.
Depending on your specific level of soreness or injury, Tehrany recommends the following self-care:
Active rest. Don’t just sit on the couch and pout — yoga may provide the relief you’re looking for. “Yoga helps the body achieve active recovery from soreness or muscle pain by helping stretch the areas where you feel discomfort, releasing tension and providing you with relief from aches and pains,” he says. “As a result, your body will feel energized and you will feel increased mobility overall.” Yoga is also known to help your body achieve an improved balance, which can, in turn, help improve your workout technique to avoid future muscle strain or injury.
Actual rest. While this may include some downtime catching up on Netflix, make sure you aren’t binging all night long — getting a good night’s sleep is essential for restoring the body. “When your body enters the non-REM or deep sleep stage, your body is working on stimulating tissue growth and muscle repair,” he says. “If someone’s sleep patterns frequently change or if their quality of sleep is hindered, their body may not recover from muscle pain or injury as well as someone who has a regulated sleep pattern.” Lack of sleep also can lead to the loss of muscle mass in general, which can ultimately affect how you perform in the gym.
Hydration. Postworkout recovery is as important as the workout itself. Proper postworkout hydration helps your body digest the nutrients it needs to repair muscle damage. If you are dehydrated after a workout, your muscles will not break down and rebuild (or get stronger) as successfully as someone who is properly hydrated. Also, dehydration causes fatigue, which will make you work harder in the gym and can lead to an overuse injury in the long run.
First aid. Finally, you must protect the strained or injured part of your body from further injury. This can mean icing, compressing and even elevating the injured part of your body during your rest period.