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How To Work Out When You’re Injured

If the problem is minor, you can keep momentum

Starting a new exercise program too aggressively, doing the same routine over and over or simply stepping the wrong way can all lead to injuries. While surgery and major injuries usually require a period of complete rest, you can often continue to exercise with a minor injury.

“After a surgery, follow your health care professional’s guidelines closely,” says Lynn Berman, a New York City physical therapist with Spring Forward Physical Therapy. In addition, any injury that has moments of sharp pain, radiating pain or referred pain (pain from a different part of the body) or loss of muscle control can be warning signs that something larger could be going on and should be checked by your doctor.

When deciding that risk-reward benefit, it’s always a good idea to discuss this plan with a physical therapist, says Berman. “However… generally minor injuries can be worked around so as not to cause that body part further injury,” he adds.  Here are general rules to help you stay active safely:


Tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendon, can occur due to overuse (e.g. tennis, golf, or another sport involving repetitive motions), injury or aging as the tendon loses its elasticity. “Often a tendonitis injury requires rest,” says Berman. “But as long as that particular area isn’t being stressed during exercise then it’s probably fine. “ For example, if you have a minor rotator cuff (shoulder) tendonitis, cardio and even lifting weights are safe as long as you don’t lift the weights overhead. Also, it’s very important to avoid pushing past pain, says Berman.

Since approximately 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, chances are good you’ll be among this majority.

Hamstring and Knee Injuries

To keep leg injuries such as knee and hamstring issues from worsening, you’ll need to decrease the level of impact to avoid further irritating the area, says Berman. “Using an elliptical machine instead of the treadmill, running on dirt instead of cement or swimming in place of running can be very helpful in reducing or eliminating high level of impact.”  Stairmaster-type machines can increase knee pain and should be avoided, although incline treadmill programs work well. Berman notes that raising the incline on the treadmill and avoiding down hills not only increases the cardiovascular benefits but also reduces the impact force tremendously.

Low Back Pain

Since approximately 80 percent of adults will experience back pain at some point in their lives, chances are good you’ll be among this majority. Exercise may seem counterintuitive but, when done properly, can actually ease lower back pain and help you heal faster. “In cases of lower back pain, walking is usually beneficial,” says Berman. “The gait pattern can help calm muscular back spasms and ‘wring out’ inflammation around a disc much like wringing out a wet towel.” Exercises that may aggravate lower back pain include walking on an incline, running, overhead presses that put weight on the spine (e.g. shoulder presses) leg press machine and leg raises where you lie on your back and lift your legs straight out and up.

Foot Pain

A common cause of heel pain, plantar fasciitis, is an overuse injury that affects the sole of the foot and causes inflammation of the tough, fibrous band of tissue (fascia) connecting your heel bone to the base of your toes.  Avoid running, hiking and dancing, says Dr. Bradley Thomas, orthopedic surgeon with Beach Cities Orthopedics in Torrance, Calif. “Swimming, elliptical trainer, cycling classes, yoga, Tai Chi and Pilates are all fine,” he notes. Thomas also recommends stretching your foot and calf before setting your feet on the floor in the morning (when it’s likely to cause the most pain). In addition, do calf stretches throughout the day and use a tennis ball to massage the bottom of your foot.

Shoulder Pain

If your shoulder hurts when you move your arm up or behind you it’s likely due to impingement, says Dr. David Geier, orthopedic surgeon in Charleston, S.C. This occurs when the space between the rotator cuff muscles and a bone on top of the shoulder (acromion) narrows, pinching the tendons. Bursitis and arthritis may also cause shoulder pain. “Avoid repetitive overhead exercises or activities,” says Geier. “An activity such as gardening usually doesn’t cause damage but could flare up shoulder pain if done for hours.” Lay off tennis, golf and other sports and exercises that involve a lot of overhead motions, Geier suggests.

Ankle Pain

Stepping off a curb the wrong way or even falling off a pair of high heels can cause you to roll or twist your ankle and stretch and tear ligaments in severe cases. If you feel pain when you put weight on the affected foot, to avoid further damage you’ll want to focus on upper body exercises or non-weight bearing activities such as stationary biking or swimming, says Geier.

“Avoid any repetitive impact exercises such as running or jogging, which will likely cause pain to perform anyway,” notes Geier, who recommends working to regain your range of motion by “drawing” the letters of the alphabet with your toes. “As symptoms improve, work on balance by standing on the injured leg on a soft surface,” says Geier.

Regardless of the injury type, even if you don’t think the exercise you did irritated that minor injury, make sure to ice it afterward. Says Berman: “Icing proactively before there is pain in an injured area is always a great way to maximize your exercising while minimizing your pain.”

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