Exercising when you’re in pain can be tricky. In this blog, we’ll talk about how to distinguish between good and bad pain, and how to stay active without aggravating injuries.
Understanding Pain During Exercise
We know exercise is good for you. If you’re recovering from an injury, you may have been told to stay active or perhaps even been given specific exercises to help; but sometimes those same activities and exercises can feel like they’re aggravating the pain you feel. How do you know whether or not this is a sign of worsening injury? Patients I speak to are often confused about how much activity is too much, and concerned that they’re getting it wrong.
The Complex Nature of Pain
The good news is that pain doesn’t necessarily indicate damage to your body. Pain is complicated and affected by lots of different factors. While sometimes it can be an indication to take it easy, at other times it can be a normal part of the healing process, and not necessarily something we need to avoid.
In fact, people who stop exercising at the first sign of discomfort often take longer to get better than those who push themselves a little further. On the other hand, people who ignore their pain altogether can end up exacerbating their symptoms and finding themselves back at square one. Understanding this balance is crucial for your recovery.
Adapting to Exercise: Finding the Right Amount
Your body’s adaptability plays a key role in rehabilitation. The key is to introduce your body (and the injured areas in particular) to gradually increasing levels of activity as your symptoms improve.
A little bit of discomfort is expected at first, but it’s important to differentiate this from the kind of pain that signals you’re doing too much.
Pain types and intensities
Pain comes in many different “flavours” and intensities. Some people assume that the kind of pain is a good indicator of what to do and what to avoid. For example, if something feels “sharp” they might take that as a sign to stop, whereas a duller pain might be perceived as ok. Or muscle soreness might be seen as positive, but anything that feels like the original injury can be quite off-putting. Although this is something to pay attention to, it’s not always that clear cut.
Instead of just focusing on the type of pain, I encourage people to pay more attention to the intensity (how painful it feels) and duration (how long it continues after you stop). We want to find the “goldilocks zone” – not too much, not too little. You don’t want to aggravate your symptoms, and equally important, we don’t want it to put you off doing the exercise.
Pain tolerance is highly individual
The goldilocks zone will be different for every person and every injury, and it’s important to pay attention to the feedback that the body is giving you. There are no bonus points for being a hero; overdoing it won’t make your recover any faster, it’ll just make you sore.
Rating your pain on a scale from 1 (hardly noticeable) to 10 (the worst pain you can imagine) can be a good way to find roughly where your goldilocks zone is. I suggest that most people aim for somewhere between a 2 and a 4 out of 10. You can also think of this as “mildly spicy” – if you get to “hot”, then dial it back a bit. If you reach “eye watering” then you’ve gone too far!
Good pain vs bad pain
Post-rehab soreness doesn’t always feel like normal post-exercise soreness. Sometimes it can resemble the pain of the original injury, adding to the confusion. As a rule, if the discomfort is mild and fades within around 48 hours, it’s typically not something to be worried about. Otherwise take it as a signal to reduce the intensity of what you’re doing.
For some people, working into the goldilocks will feel positive. Often patients say things like “I can feel it’s working the right area”. This can vary widely though, and if it doesn’t feel like that to you it’s not necessarily a sign you’re doing anything wrong. If at any point you feel like something is “wrong”, though, or it’s painful enough that it’s making you want to stop, then that’s the time to adjust what you’re doing.
When to seek professional advice
This is where we come in! An important part of my work involves helping patients interpret and navigate their body’s signals to find their personal goldilocks zone. Adjusting the exercises to suit your body, or changing your training routine, can allow you to stay active with much less pain and smooth the recovery process. We’ll help you to do this, and we’ll also teach you the skills to help yourself in the future.
Once mastered, these skills give patients confidence in doing their rehab exercises and day to day activities, and pave the way back to doing the things they enjoy.
Understanding and respecting your body’s pain signals during exercise will allow you to effectively manage your recovery and stay on track with your fitness goals. If in doubt, consider professional advice to tailor your rehabilitation plan to your body’s individual needs.