The 3 phases of recovery from exercise-related injury
Whether you are a competitive athlete or someone who exercises regularly to stay in shape, you will almost surely have to deal with an injury that interrupts your daily routine. And too often the tendency is to stop exercising once an injury occurs. But doing so can really set your fitness level back, so it’s best to find ways to remain physically active while allowing your injury to heal (see “Remaining active while you heal,” below).
Injury refers to the loss of function of a body part with or without some visual disruption of the part’s structure. The injury may be very obvious. For example, if you rupture your biceps tendon, you will often see an obvious lump in your arm. You will lose power but may have no pain. Or you have pain that decreases function but you can’t localize it to one spot. With biceps tendonitis, moving the muscle results in pain around the shoulder and upper arm. Yet looking at the arm and shoulder, everything appears normal.
Whatever the injury, there are three basic phases to getting yourself back to where you were before your injury:
- immediate post-injury phase
- recovery period
- functional phase
You may move through these phases quickly for minor problems or it may take months for severe injury.
These three phases apply to recovery from minor injuries, such as muscle strains, ligament sprains, and tendonitis, as well as major injuries that require emergency treatment or surgery.
The immediate post-injury phase
Doctors refer to this as the acute phase. During the first 24 to 48 hours following a minor injury, think R-I-C-E — rest, ice, compression, andelevation.
- Rest refers to minimizing movement of the injured body part to prevent further harm to the tissues.
- Ice should be applied as soon as possible following the injury or onset of inflammation. Ice the area for 15 to no more than 20 minutes. Experts differ on how frequently to apply ice. You should wait 30 minutes before applying ice again, and there may not be any advantage to repeating ice treatment more frequently than every two hours. Ice helps to decrease pain and swelling.
- Compression with an elastic bandage will help reduce swelling if wrapped immediately over the injured area. Do not wrap it so tightly that the area beyond the bandage throbs. Redo the wrap as it loosens.
- Elevation of the body part should be above the level of the heart, allowing gravity to drain fluid from the injury. Elevation is best started immediately, but it is still effective even after significant swelling has occurred.
Remaining active while you heal
Even during the acute phase, you can and should continue to remain physically active. If the injury is to any part of the leg, aerobics may not be possible during the early post-injury phase unless you have access to an arm cycle. However, you can still do upper body and arm strength training. In addition, you will want to start very gentle stretching of the muscles in the affected limb and perform regular stretching of the rest of your body. Stop stretching if it causes pain.
To maintain muscle tone around the injury, do sets of repetitive isometric contractions (no active joint movement). Isometric exercises are those in which a muscle tenses but doesn’t contract. Clasping your hands together and pushing or lifting free weights are examples of isometric exercises.
The recovery period
Once swelling is subsiding and pain diminishes, you move into the recovery phase, during which you regain range of motion, strength, and endurance. At the same time you are working on the affected area, continue exercising your other body parts.
Go slow as you begin active movement of the injured area. During this stage, warm your muscles with heat or through aerobics before you begin stretching and range-of-motion joint movement. Use ice following the routine if you have pain or swelling afterward. Stretch two to three times a day; do range of motion more frequently.
Muscle power diminishes rapidly when muscles are not used; the proteins in surrounding muscles start to break down within 24 hours if a joint is completely immobilized. Start to add a couple pounds of resistance to active joint movement. The goal is to do more repetitions per set (12 to 20) with less weight. Slowly increase the amount of weight, keeping the number of repetitions on the high side. Back down if pain or swelling recurs. Use ice as needed after exercise routines.
Keeping up your endurance after an injury is often the most challenging task, especially for runners. Swimming and water aerobics will usually put the least amount of stress on an injury to the leg.
The functional phase
This last phase is the time to build toward regaining your full exercise capacity. You will be testing the injured area as you work your way up to your previous fitness level. For example, if you have sprained an ankle, start with quick-paced walking and light jogging for 10 to 15 minutes. Again, use pain and swelling to guide you on how quickly you can increase the time and intensity of exercise that puts pressure on the ankle.
If you can, ice the injured area after exercise for at least the first week or two, especially if there is any discomfort or swelling. Preventing repeat injury is an important component of the functional phase. Consider using a simple elastic brace or consult with your doctor about other devices and orthotics to provide a little extra support. Despite the injured area not causing symptoms, the tissues may not have healed completely.
A continuum with overlap
The three phases, starting from time of injury to return to full exercise capacity, are a continuum, but it should not be viewed as a strict one. One phase will overlap the next. For some arm injuries, you may be able to immobilize the arm while riding a stationary bike or exercising on an elliptical runner, maintaining cardiovascular fitness.
The bottom line: start some form of exercise the day after the injury, no matter how minor the activity. Just try to do a little more on each succeeding day.