There’s no way around it: injuries suck.
As a coach and a massage therapist, I see them constantly and I observe the way they affect people’s lives, and I know from personal experience how devastating injury and pain can be. Why, then, is it such a taboo subject? What can we do (as trainers and clients) to mitigate the effects of injury? Let’s talk a bit about personal experience before we discuss solutions.
When I was eighteen, after several years of martial arts, dance, and CrossFit training, I wound up with very severe and very mysterious pain in my right hip and my left shoulder. I didn’t have health insurance at the time so there wasn’t a whole lot I could do, but the pain was severe enough that it affected my ability to move, work, and exercise the way I was accustomed to. Being young, I assumed (and was repeatedly told) that I would recover naturally with time. But I didn’t. The pain continued and worsened for several years. Once I got regular access to healthcare, it was another two years before my healthcare team would agree to do imaging. In the meantime - my mental state suffered immensely. I was in pain constantly, and due to compensatory patterns my injuries took up residence in various parts of my body that seemed to have no connection to my original issues (see also: plantar fasciitis, low back pain, knee pain, neck issues, shin splints). As a human being, pain is disruptive and, well, painful. As an athlete, our identities get wrapped up in our performance, and when we can’t perform the way we are accustomed to, we often experience anxiety, depression, and mini identity crises. I tried everything that everyone recommended and sought advice everywhere, but the pain didn’t go away.
At the age of twenty one, after several years of frustration, I was approved for a contrast MRI of my hip. My joint was severely impinged and my cartilage had been ground down to nearly nothing. We also discovered that I had developed mild scoliosis and an inguinal hernia. I had reconstructive surgery on my hip shortly thereafter, and got my inguinal hernia repaired five weeks after my hip surgery. (Note: my shoulder pain was likely due to a torn rotator cuff. I did not get surgery on my shoulder, but I rehabbed the hell out of it. It took about a year for it to feel “normal” again).
The post-surgery road was enlightening, and I learned several important lessons.
Injury begets more injury. Our bodies are amazing at compensating and avoiding pain. For me, having such major injuries at such a young age has meant dealing with regular and chronic injury ever since, and likely means I will be dealing with this pattern on some level for a very long time. I have had recurring issues with my lower back and neck, with my knees and my shoulders, BUT - I now know how to respond, both physically and mentally (read on!).
In order to recover from injury or even nagging pain, you need to put in WORK. Rehabilitation is not about temporarily doing whatever you need to fix your issues and then being done with the issues forever after that. You will likely need to completely re-think the way that you move and approach exercise, and you will likely need to continue your rehab (sometimes to a lesser extent) preventatively for a long time. Once you are injured, you probably can’t go on “autopilot” in the gym anymore - you need to pay attention, stay aware, and stay on top of your rehab and pre-hab efforts. The sooner we accept this, the happier we will be.
If you can do ANY exercise, you are lucky and you need to take advantage of that ability. This one is a tough one. Injury has a tendency to bring out the “inner extremist” in all of us. I can’t judge, because I’ve been there; HOWEVER, as a coach for the last eight years, I am appalled at how many regular clients cancel their memberships and stop exercising because they develop an injury. The great thing about fitness (namely, functional training and strength training) is that there are literally hundreds (maybe thousands??) of exercises in existence. There was a period in time in which I had a “menu” of about 8 exercises that I knew wouldn’t cause me pain - and after much griping, I learned to live with that temporary circumstance and I utilized those exercises. Pain sucks, and rehab is boring. You know what sucks even more? Having to completely rebuild your baseline fitness AND rehab an injury at the same time. Can’t do upper body work? Learn about different variations of squats and lunges. Have an injured knee? Work on your arms and core. If you can move, do it. You will thank yourself later.
The ego needs to go. This is perhaps the toughest of them all. Professional and competitive athletes excepted, your lifts and benchmark workout times do not define you. Your performance will vary day by day, year by year, and situation by situation. When you are injured currently or previously, or are prone to injury, your health becomes your number one priority. Whether you are lifting alone or taking a class with 20 people, if you feel you are doing damage to yourself, fix it. Talk to your coach. Listen to your body and adjust. Do what you need to do to make sure that you address the issue quickly. If you don’t - you are essentially gambling on your quality of life for the next month/year/decade for the sake of a few moments of competitive glory and ego. Be smart.
Get help from a qualified professional. Your trainer is not a doctor (and on that note - if you encounter a trainer that attempts to act like a doctor: please run away). Your friend with chronic neck issues can’t diagnose you. That blog post you read on back pain is not customized to you. Seek help from a medical professional that knows what they are talking about.
Being in pain, being physically limited, and feeling like there’s no endpoint take a huge toll on our mental health.
I get it. My personal injury history is the reason I got into this business; however, perspective trumps all.
When it comes to prevention and ego, what is ultimately more important to you: beating the guy next to you on bench press in the next few minutes, or being able to put your shirt on by yourself for the next two weeks? Most of us work out so that we can live healthier lives. Make sure that your goal is reflected in your methods.
When it comes to injury rehabilitation: as harsh as it sounds, it’s not that big of a deal. My oldest sister has been confined to a wheelchair for over half of her life. My mother suffered a painful terminal illness for months. Chances are, even when you’re injured, there are millions of people who would give anything to be able to do a quarter of what you can do. Take advantage of your abilities. Work on changing your movement patterns, seek treatment, be proactive about your recovery, scale workouts however you need to for the time being, and then just live your life. These days, even when I wind up with pain that puts me in a neck brace for a couple of weeks, I work around it, I take proactive steps to alleviate the issue, and then I do my best to push it out of my mind. This mental control is a difficult skill to develop, especially when your pain affects other areas of your life, but it’s important. Keep yourself in check.
Our lives are full of struggles, and pain may be one of them, don’t let it rule your emotions if you have the luxury of a temporary situation. Be safe, be proactive, and stay active.