Injury is common amongst athletes and the recreationally active alike. For the purpose of this article, injury will refer to injury of soft or connective tissues; that is muscle fibres, ligaments, tendons and joint cartilage. Generally a person is only considered injured when there is acute and observable structural damage to one of these tissues. This is considered complete failure of the tissue and might be a complete tear in the muscle, ligament or tendon. There is usually some form of pain, discomfort, spasm, and loss of range of motion and strength associated with injury. These symptoms, however, are often present despite a CT or MRI scan revealing the structures to be normal. In these instances the fibres of the connective tissues are disrupted which interferes with how they line up, causing them to pull in different directions when movement occurs. There is no complete failure, but there is a structural anomaly which will relate to functional impairments.
When there is no observable damage to the tissues the athlete is traditionally informed that there is no injury and probably served a dose of anti-inflammatory pills and pain killers. However there is a fine line between soreness and injury. If the soreness, spasm or discomfort begins to affect your performance seek help immediately. There are some functional changes around a joint to look out for in the absence of complete failure. We often see a range of motion abnormality where the injured joint is misaligned and its motion asymmetrical to the opposite side. In some cases the muscles surrounding an injured joint are activated more to provide stability. Where the stiff muscles limit the motion of a joint, it is seen as “guarding”. In other cases the muscles are less activated in a pain-avoidance manner. Here the muscles contract less to limit motion. In either case, the muscles and joint are not functioning optimally. There is often a loss of proprioception, which is the ability to determine where a part of the body is in space. This can lead to a decrement in agility and coordination, and poor motor patterns. These functional changes induce compensatory mechanisms to avoid the pain. This may help you through the day or get you through a workout, but if the compensation becomes a long-term solution it can cause more problems in other areas. Ultimately, your fitness will be affected. So deal with the problem promptly.
Firstly, seek the help of an appropriate professional. Physiotherapists and sports doctors are able to diagnose injuries. Strength and conditioning coaches and biokineticists cannot diagnose conditions, but they teach you how to move with correct form. Get back to exercising as soon as you can after the injury. However, your regime will need to be modified to give you an effective workout while avoiding any aggravation of the injury. Exercise will not only improve the circulation to the affected area to stimulate growth and repair, but it will also help to correct any of those compensatory mechanisms developed. DO NOT RUSH YOUR REHAB; focus on correct movement technique and gradually increase the load and intensity as your strength and range of motion improve.
To prevent minor damage or complete failure to soft and connective tissues you need to warm up. If you do not have time to warm up, you do not have time to train. Studies have shown that dynamic warm ups that include movements relating to the movements of the workout significantly reduces the potential for injury during training. Spend 10 – 15 minutes on your warm up and include time on the foam roller, dynamic stretching and mobility drills, and lifting mechanics. Foam roll before dynamic warm ups and stretching to break up the adhesions that developed in the connective tissues during the previous workout. This will give you a more effective stretch. Keep an ice pack ready; the cold helps to relieve pain and inflammation and is probably the best tool to have in your recovery regime.
The take-home message is that prevention is better than cure. Don’t be afraid, or too proud, to ask for help. Eat natural foods and supplements with fish oil. Focus on maintaining good posture and technique through full range of motion. Dial down the volume and intensity if your form is not accurate. Perfect practise makes perfect form.