“No pain, no gain.” Anytime someone is trying to gut their way through something, this phrase will inevitably slip out of their mouth as a way to say that they expect pain. They don’t feel like they can get over an injury unless they are able to “push through the pain”. The issue with this is that pain does not work that way. You experiencing pain, intentionally or not, does not lead to less pain down the road because you braved through it.
The “no pain, no gain” mentality has its place. The phrase is completely valid and relevant when you’re doing something like lifting weights and your muscles are so fatigued that it feels like someone turned the broiler on inside them. It isn’t relevant when you have a torn tendon in your ankle and 8 miles into a hike you’re limping so much that you would be confused for a zombie. When you’re otherwise healthy and uninjured, pushing yourself into points of discomfort to improve your performance is totally admirable and even desirable from a health and wellness perspective. When you’re dealing with an injury, you can push yourself, but there has to be more appreciation for the body’s healing processes.
There is much more subtlety to injuries than ignoring it completely versus absolute avoidance of the injured area. Some pain is ok when you’re trying to recover from an injury. For example, with a partial tendon tear, at some point you will have to use that tendon, and that will likely be uncomfortable initially. If the exercise you’re doing is uncomfortable and the pain goes away after a few minutes, chances are you’ll be perfectly fine. However, if there’s sharp and/or stabbing pain that lingers for 3+ days, you did too much. Here’s some guidelines to help figure out how you can better adjust your activity when you’re dealing with an injury:
- Avoid activities that cause sharp pain, severe pain, or numbness/tingling – These sensations usually indicate threatening activities or movements. Aching, burning, or soreness are fine so long as the severity is low. Numbness and tingling often indicate threat to a nerve, so be cautious with these symptoms as well.
- Tissue type matters – Bone injuries tend to take longer to heal than muscle, tendon, or ligament injuries. However, it is common for muscle, tendon, and ligament injuries to take a long time (greater than 3 months) to heal (greater than 3 months), if they are not appropriately rested and loaded as they heal. Regardless of tissue type, they will have to be used (loaded) at some point to regain their normal function.
- Use the 24-hour rule – If your symptoms disappear or return to your baseline level in 24 hours or less, keep doing what you’re doing. Symptoms lasting more than 24-48 hours after activity suggest that you overdid things.
- Green light, yellow light, red light – Along with the 24-hour rule, consider how your symptoms change over time. If there’s no worsening of your symptoms and they’re relatively low, you’ve got a green light and can continue. If your symptoms increase by a moderate amount, you’re at a yellow light and should be prepared to adjust your activity if you haven’t already. If you’re having severe pain/symptoms, you’re at the red light and you’ll need to significantly change your activities and let your symptoms settle before getting back up to speed.
These guidelines go a long way in helping you adjust your activity based on changes in your symptoms as they happen. There’s a time and place to push yourself hard but the “no pain, no gain” mentality and pushing through pain is rarely something that works out in your favor. If you pay attention to your body’s response, you’ll see much more improvement in your recovery. If you’re struggling with an injury, talk to your doctor or physical therapist to get personalized help.
***The above information, including text, images, and all other materials, is provided for educational purposes only, and not as a replacement or supplement to professional medical advice. Please contact a certified healthcare professional or your primary physician for any personal concerns.