Tips to Live By

5 Tips for Exercising Safely While Rehabbing an Injury

April 3, 2023 - Katie McCallum

Putting the pain aside for a moment, the most frustrating thing about an injury is the setback it causes in your training or workout routine.

Some injuries are acute, occurring suddenly, as in the case of broken bones and torn ligaments. Others are chronic, developing gradually from overuse or misuse, as in the case of tendinitis or stress fractures. No matter the type, though, every injury needs to be rehabilitated in a safe, slow manner to ensure the area regains full function — sufficient strength, endurance, power and flexibility.

"What this looks like exactly and how long before you're back to full activity varies by the specific injury," says Dr. Vijay Jotwani, a sports medicine doctor at Houston Methodist. "The overarching principles, though, are always the same — build back slowly, listen to your body and see a sports medicine doctor if you have any uncertainty about your injury or recovery process."

Proper rehabilitation isn't just important for ensuring you return to the activities you enjoy as strong as you were before. It's also critical for preventing re-injury or a progression of the injury into something even worse, which can cause even further setback.

Here are Dr. Jotwani's five tips for safely returning to exercise after an injury:

1. Consult a sports medicine doctor about your injury

Sometimes it's obvious you need to see a doctor about an injury, like when you feel or hear a pop and immediately know there's a problem.

Other times, it's not so clear. Feeling some pain, you wonder: Is it a short-term thing that I can power through? Or might I make things worse if I keep working out?

"It's really a question best answered by a specialist," says Dr. Jotwani. "If you're having pain for more than a week and it's not going away on its own, it's time to get it evaluated by a sports medicine doctor."

Take knee pain for instance. It could be caused by muscle imbalance and, in that case, it's probably OK to keep working it, even if it hurts a little bit — though Dr. Jotwani adds that it may flare up again if you don't identify and address the root of the pain. But he also points out that knee pain could be due to a piece of cartilage that's broken off the bone or something else that needs evaluation and treatment to prevent it from progressing into a more serious issue.

(Related: Is Your Pain Just Muscle Soreness or an Actual Injury?)

"There are certainly times where you can continue with your sports activities and exercise, but it really is best to let a doctor guide you on when that's appropriate," says Dr. Jotwani. "Your doctor can also help you understand what the rehab process should look like for your specific injury."

2. Continue being active but avoid using the injured body part

Your doctor may tell you it's OK to push through some discomfort right away, but other injuries require time off to allow for proper healing and rehabilitation.

"In this case, we certainly don't want you using the injured body part, but we typically wouldn't tell you to be completely inactive," says Dr. Jotwani. "You can usually use that time to work on other parts of your body."

For example, people with a stress fracture in their foot shouldn't go for a run or do squats. But they should be fine doing core strengthening and seated upper body weightlifting.

"I typically recommend strength training as part of any injury rehab exercise regimen because it helps ensure the muscles and joints throughout the body can help support the injured area during and after recovery," adds Dr. Jotwani.

3. Return back slowly, listening to your body

Whether you're cleared for exercise immediately or after a few weeks or months off, be sure to build back slowly and steadily.

"I'd rather you work at a lower intensity and be able to work out the next day then overdo it and be out for a few days or a week because you're too sore or you re-injure something," explains Dr. Jotwani.

This is why it's crucial to not only having a rehab plan and timeline, but also listen to your body. Putting together a specific plan without consulting an expert is tough — a meniscus rehab exercise plan will look different from rehab exercises for a shoulder injury. But there are some overarching principles.

"This doesn't apply for every injury, but for baseball pitchers, for instance, we say that if you've been off two months for an injury, you need to do a two-month recovery with graduated progression before you're back to full throwing progression," says Dr. Jotwani.

4. Consider seeing a physical therapist

Your sports medicine doctor will recommend exercises and a timeline, but Dr. Jotwani says it's almost always recommended to work with a physical therapist as you rehab an injury.

"It's a good idea especially if it's an injury that's kept you out for multiple weeks or you're trying to get back to a place where you can train and compete for a sporting event," recommends Dr. Jotwani. "This is when using the expertise of a physical therapist to guide your recovery can help ensure that you get back to full function so you can do the things you want to do."

A physical therapist can also help identify muscle imbalances that may be leading to joint pain caused by overuse or misuse, so you can correct the issue. Otherwise, you may find yourself back in the same place a few months down the road, dealing, yet again, with nagging pain that sets you back.

(Related: Why Physical Therapy Is Important, When to Go & What to Expect)

5. Know when to apply ice, heat and a brace or wrap

With any injury, there's likely to be some soreness as you start using the joint or muscle again. Listen to your body and adjust your activities accordingly, but know that ice and heat can help you find relief.

"Ice is good for reducing inflammation and swelling, while heat is good for loosening a tight muscle," explains Dr. Jotwani. "Depending on the injury and what you're experiencing at the time, either or both of these could be used. It might also help to alternate them."

In some cases, a joint-specific wrap or brace may be recommended to help support the area as you start exercising again.

"These are designed to put pressure on the body part, supporting it and restricting abnormal motion," says Dr. Jotwani. "This can help prevent re-injury. But a brace isn't an excuse to overdo it. It's merely an aid in your recovery."

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Categories: Tips to Live By