Health / Expert Advice

How to Modify Workouts for Common Injuries and Pains

With the help of two professionals, we unpack how to work out while experiencing common fitness-related aches and pains.

Aches and pains are all too common in the fitness world—it’s the price many of us pay for putting in an immense effort, being unaware of proper form, or overusing a certain set of muscles. Luckily for us, there are plenty of ways to recover and even continue working out with such injuries. With the help of two professionals, we discuss the most common injuries and areas of pain—and how to modify workouts around them (and help them recover).

Ankle Sprains

We used to get them as kids after a day spent running around outside. Now we get them while running trails or working out at the gym. Ankle sprains were and still are, well, a pain—and they can stop us in our tracks. “It is never advisable to jump or run on an actively swollen ankle or acutely sprained ankle, as the extra swelling significantly impairs the normal mechanics of the ankle/foot,” says April Oury, PT MS, IOC, CFMT, FAAOMPT, and founder of Body Gears Physical Therapy.

We know you enjoy HIIT workouts, but if your ankle is feeling any pain, skip the high-intensity stuff. You could risk more swelling, impacting your ability to even walk. That said, there are still workouts we can do in this condition. Oury advises picking exercises that are non-jarring to the area, like cycling for cardiovascular fitness and weight machines for muscular strengthening.

All the while, make sure you see a physical therapist for a thorough examination. “Do not ‘rub it out’ or ‘walk it off’,” Oury warns. Doing so, without a professional, might worsen the situation. It’s okay, though, to tape the area before going in to see someone. Make sure that you have the sprained tissue assessed and treated for the best route to recovery and full function.

Still have pain from an older sprain? Simple modifications to your workouts can actually improve its condition. “You can place a board under your heels to increase plantar flexion or place a small folded towel along the outer edge of your shoe to help increase eversion while you squat,” says Oury. By doing so, the sprained ligaments have more slack, often reducing symptoms slightly.

Shoulder Pain

Clifford Stark, medical director of Sports Medicine at Chelsea, and director of North Shore-LIJ Plainview Sports Medicine Fellowship explains that the shoulder is naturally unstable due to its design. This allows for a wide range of motion, but limited stability. It’s it one of the more common places to experience pain.

Many injuries to this area actually involve the stabilizers, aka the rotator cuff tendons, stabilizing ligaments, and cartilage. “These need to be re-strengthened in order to allow the injured structures to heal, and to protect them from further injury,” Stark explains. “Returning to a sport or other physical activity can be challenging, but much like other parts of the body, sometimes it’s helpful to do so gradually and early instead of resting in the interim.”

He suggests Kinesio tape (elastic therapeutic tape) and altering motions to fit the limitations of your injury, so long as you’re not overcompensating with other areas. “An example would be returning to tennis, but avoiding the serve, or at least modifying the motion to avoid pain. The tape can also help support the structures during this process,” he says.

Lower Back Pain

The cause of lower back pain can be hard to trace. Sometimes it’s sudden and jarring, other times it comes with time and overuse. In either case, it’s important to approach future physical activity carefully and safely. Stark states that this can especially help in the recovery process. “For sports and other activities, I usually recommend a slow, gradual return, avoiding increased pain,” says Stark.

However, care outside of physical activity is also heavily recommended. “I often recommend [that] patients have a standing desk at work so that their muscles remain engaged throughout the day and don’t get too stiff,” Stark adds. “Sometimes, for lower back issues, a brace can also help stabilize the area while returning to activity.” Stability and proper form are paramount in this case since any strain can cause your symptoms to flare up.

Neck Pain

Those who work out take gaze and head placement seriously. While you may mean well by intently looking forward, doing so with too much strain can actually cause neck pain. “The problem is that the neck should be relaxed and in a mid-range position, not extended or flexed excessively,” says Oury. “This is where the nerves coming out of the neck tend to have the least resistance to deliver their muscle firing messages to the rest of the body. It is also where breathing without force also takes place.”

Many people use the muscles in the back of the neck to hold it in place. However, Oury recommends that those with neck pain let the chin fall. “Allow some wiggle in the neck for softness and allow the eyes to gently fix in the middle, not up into extension, cramming everything posteriorly,” she says. Keep in mind, this is no excuse to stare down at your phone; not only is that dangerous, but it can also cause neck strain.

Shin Splints

We’ve gone into detail about shin splints in the past. Typically, the term is a catchall referring to pain below the knee on the front or outside of the leg. Those who think they have shin splints should first rule out any other possible injuries, like a stress fracture. Stark describes this as significant tenderness over the shinbone or pain when hopping. In either case, it’s important that you refrain from running, and rest until healed. During this period, Oury and Stark advise icing, stretching your lower legs, taping, and non-impact physical therapy.

Oury also recommends one specific workout to help strengthen your legs and prevent shin splints from happening. To begin, lie in a side plank with the top leg resting on a chair. Now try to lift your bottom leg off of the ground. This movement creates a demand for the gracilis to fire. The gracilis, while not exactly popular, is an important leg muscle responsible for controlling the tilt of your tibia once your foot hits the ground. “If it isn’t strong, the tibia tends to lose its effectiveness as a vertical force transferor and, therefore, the pain starts,” Oury explains.

As always, if you’re experiencing pain or an injury we advise you to seek out professional help. A doctor or physical therapist will be able to accurately access your pain and advise the best route to recovery.

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